Ivory is not beautiful, it’s barbaric


Nicky Campbell, The Guardian

Date Published

Growing up in our two up, two down terraced house on the Southside ofEdinburgh, I shared my bedroom with a cherished family heirloom – my granny’s mini-grand. This beautiful piano had been to the other side of the world and back. It ended up taking up half my room and a whole lot of my life. I taught myself to play on it, bashing out the sevenths while pretending to be (pre-Wings) McCartney. Now I think of that piano with total revulsion. I believe anyone in the possession of ivory should feel the same. It is over. It has to be.

Look at the knife handles or antique toothpick and then think of the dead mother with her face hacked off as her tuskless, helpless one-year-old tries to nudge her back to life. Google image search is always a useful resource. I feel no differently about the thought of a gorilla-hand ashtray (yes, they are a thing in parts of the Far East) or a nice cool glass of lion bone wine (ditto). One more time: ivory is so over.

We have learned a lot about these extraordinary intelligent animals since King Leopold of the Belgians mutilated his way through the great herds of the Congo. Elephants mourn, they weep and they show empathy. This not Disney. It’s science. Any evolutionary biologist will tell you why, and any ethologist and scientist in the field will send you peer-reviewed papers that are a total revelation (they were to me). Oh, and by way the ivory from natural wastage or natural causes is infinitesimal and does tend to set a rather bad example. It. Is. Not. Beautiful.

What is it with human exceptionalism? Are we the special species? Surely realising that we aren’t shouldn’t be too far beyond our almighty intellectual grasp.

The UK is the largest exporter of ivory in the EU, ivory is traded within our borders

Here’s the topical poser. Despite committing in its last two election manifestos to end the UK ivory trade, why has our government failed to impose a total ban? The UK is the largest exporter of ivory in the EU, ivory is traded within our borders, and investigations into the UK ivory trade have repeatedly revealed illegal ivory items being passed off as legal. Even the planned partial ban on ivory sales – which is still being debated – would not cover items produced before 1947. The question echoing round the country right now is this: “How is it that we are doing so little, while China, the country that has constantly and rightly been considered the main culprit for elephant poaching, has now made greater commitments than the UK?” It’s a great question.

China, doing more than us? Extraordinary. Amazing. As Kafka might say, “Don’t bloody well bring me into this.” Thirty-one African states where elephants range said, “Enough is enough”, and pressured China to act. Eventually, with an eye on the bottom line of its African investments, China agreed. Roll on Hong Kong. Those same African states are making the same pleas to us and can’t quite believe what is not happening.

Here’s the recent timeline. At the end of 2016 China announced that it would close its ivory trade by the end of 2017: that by 31 March it would close its state-funded ivory carving factories and build from that to a full ban. The US, the second largest market for ivory, has imposed a near-complete ban on ivory salesacross state lines. Individual states are passing their own bans to further restrict sales within their boundaries.

Yet here we are in February 2017, and the British government still intends to allow the free trade of ivory items produced before 1947. Many but by no means everyone in the antiques industry claim it will be damaged irrevocably if it can’t sell old pieces. I refer the sincere and honourable members to those gorilla-hand ashtrays. Exquisite.

Incidentally, the Trumpian future is less certain. While we can see the notorious photo of Eric Trump swinging an elephant’s trophy tail after the gleeful kill, perhaps we should be pragmatic and re-frame the issue for the President’s friends and family. Save the elephant or there’ll be nothing left for you to to shoot.

Banning all ivory sales in the UK will not save the elephants on its own – if only it were that simple – but campaigners argue it will bring the UK back to pole position in seeking to ensure elephants survive, and might allow us to seek greater action by other nations. This seems to be what the UK public wants. More than 85% have stated their support for a total ban on the ivory trade.

Let’s not forget the most obvious truth. The only true value of ivory is to an elephant; it was only ever the vanity and greed of humans that placed a financial value on it. Those of us living today can and must remove that false valuation. There is no greater mission, no more important cause to champion than the fight to save an animal that inhabited this earth long before homo sapiens pitched up. We are better than this.

Back to the piano, then. Should the government strike the right chord? Take a sad song and make it better? With my proper adherence to BBC impartiality, I of course can’t take a position on any matter of government policy. But let me just say this: I have a view.