Saving Elephants by Making Expensive Art


John R. Platt, Take Part

Date Published

See llink for photos.

How do you persuade ivory buyers in China not to spend their money on illegally trafficked elephant parts? Here’s one answer: Give them something just as good instead.

That’s the not-so-nutty idea behind a new “green collecting” campaign that aims to replace ivory carvings with artworks that are just as impressive but are produced using sustainable materials such as ceramics, crystals, and, believe it or not, tiny nut shells or fruit pits.

In addition to being greener, the campaign by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, encourages craftspeople to produce beautiful artworks that have the same high cultural value as ivory but that can be produced “without the reputational cost” of trading in illegal wildlife products. Reputation, known as “face,” is extremely important in Chinese culture, and campaigners are currently working to dispel the belief that owning wildlife products creates social prestige.

Some of the products displayed at a recent event include ceramic elephants, amber sea turtles, wooden bears, and intricately carved nuts depicting figures from Chinese culture.

“China has a rich heritage of collecting, and today’s collectors should focus on the intrinsic artistic and cultural value of the artwork and not the material from which it is derived,” Zhe School master craftsman Liu Xiangqian said in a statement. “We would rather leave wildlife to co-exist with our descendants than leave our descendants with evidence of wildlife killing.”

Liu and his school’s artisans conducted a live demonstration of the carving techniques last month at the sixth China Art Handicrafts Expo, hosted by Wen Wan Tian Xia, an e-commerce retailer of antiques and other collectable items.

Beyond their cultural value, many of these green products fetch prices just as high as ivory. A single nut micro-carving from one of the artists TRAFFIC recruited to the project could sell for upwards of $50,000, said Sammi Li, the organization’s communications officer in China. “Some of the expo attendees are nut-carving lovers, so they know this form of handcraft art is very precious and worthy of investment,” she said.

TRAFFIC will now expand the green collecting campaign to advertisements in subways and airports. It will also continue working with Wen Wan Tian Xia in a joint marketing campaign to reach more Chinese art collectors. The goal, Li said, is to have collectors focus on the “culture and handicrafts skill” instead of the supposed value of ivory.