By Chere Di Boscio
Mammoth ivory from the tusks of long-dead woolly mammoths unearthed in Russia is causing to concern to many who ask whether there can be such a thing as ‘ethical ivory’.
Each year during the spring thaw, dozens of planes fly over the Siberian tundra in search of the remains of wooly mammoths, and each year, more such ivory is uncovered, as climate change means retreating permafrost is revealing more mammoth skeletons than expected. In fact, there are an estimated 10 million mammoth corpses still yet to be discovered, and every year, Russia exports around 60 million tonnes of mammoth ivory to China alone–by far its biggest market, followed by the USA. Mammoth ivory is now so common in America that First Lady Michelle Obama has been photographed wearing jewellery made from it.
Certainly, it’s a lucrative trade. Mammoth tusks are worth about £320 per kilogram, which is far more expensive than elephant ivory. Beyond the fact that mammoth ivory is a kind of antique, it also has the advantage of being legal, unlike elephant ivory, which is internationally banned by CITIES.
While some argue that the plethora of mammoth ivory available means there is less of a need for elephant tusk ivory, since the latter is so relatively cheap, this is still far from the case. After all, why buy legal ivory for hundreds of times the cost of poached material, especially when using it is socially acceptable?
Furthermore, no one apart from experts can really tell whether jewellery made from ivory is mammoth or elephant, so the message being sent by the wearer is that using any kind of ivory adornment is ok. This notion alarms elephant conservationists such as Save the Elephants, whose recent campaign states that “All ivory, even if legally sourced, fuels the ivory trade.”
Booming Trade, Doomed Species
And the ivory trade is booming. Recently, the largest slaughter of elephants in decades took place in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National Park, an elephant reserve. Poachers wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades slaughtered hundreds of elephants, reminiscent of a similar butchering in 2006 just outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. The reason? To provide illegal ivory to growing global demand.
As a result of such actions, elephants, once so plentiful in Africa and Asia, are nearing extinction. And all because some heartless people think ivory chopsticks, hair pins and trinkets are pretty.
In 2013, more than 35,000 elephants across Africa were killed for their ivory, and most of this was sold (illegally) to China. However, there is still strong demand in the rest of Asia, including Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, as well as in America and Europe (particularly France).
A Vegan Alternative That IS No Alternative
Recently, Conservation International launched the Tagua Initiative®, a project set in northwest Ecuador, that aims to provide economic incentives for sustainable harvesting of the tagua palm nut, Phytelephas Æquatorialis, which is a rare palm seed grown in the lush lowlands of Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. This brown skinned nut has a hard white flesh that not only resembles ivory, but like elephant tusks, it also antiques as it ages. This material known as “vegetable ivory” or “the elephant plant” shares so many qualities of real ivory that it’s now been cited as a viable alternative.
But the problems remain the same with this vegan alternative as they are with mammoth ivory – the Tagua nut is actually more expensive than ivory, isn’t as prestigious in Asian and other cultures, and just encourages more people to think it’s ok to wear ivory – even if it’s just something that looks very much like it.
Any Form of Ivory Is Harmful
In 2008, conservationists warned that African elephants would become extinct by 2020 if widespread poaching continued but given the current rate of slaughter, some fear African elephants could indeed be annihilated within the next six years.
To help stop this from happening, India has banned mammoth ivory imports, suggesting that all ivory is harmful to elephants in the long run.
Given that mammoth ivory only sends the message that using ivory is ok, isn’t it time that other countries do the same?