White gold: Will burning our ivory stockpile prevent poaching of Indian elephants?


Vrushal Pendharkar, First Post

Date Published

Next time you are tempted to buy that beautiful ivory carved artifact, think again. You won’t be only buying a sculpture to adorn your beach house or a lampshade to illuminate your bedside table. You could be buying a part of a brutally killed elephant. The largest land animal probably would have been shot at in cold blood, with its ivory tusks hacked off, then left to die a gory, agonising death.

Possession or trade of ivory has been banned in India and internationally since 1990. At the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conclave concluded in October, the governments of 182 countries agreed to shut down their domestic ivory markets completely.

In May this year, Kenya publicly set fire to over 100 tonnes of ivory stockpile in its possession. This was a symbolic gesture sending out a strong emphatic signal, to poachers and collectors, disapproving trade in what is termed as “white gold”.

India has been planning a similar exercise for a while now. Project Elephant is part of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and provides financial and technical support to all the 16 major elephant bearing states of the country. Its director RK Srivastava said at the time: “We ask the state forest departments to burn ivory publicly or in the presence of the media.” None of the 16 states has so far come forward with a decision to burn ivory.

Historically, facilities created to store ivory were on a small scale as ivory was disposed off through open auctions through government owned cooperatives.

The Karnataka forest department has the largest stockpile of ivory in its custody in India with 20 tonnes; the number for whole of India stands at more than 100 tonnes. Chief wildlife warden for Karnataka MB Hosmat put forth a proposal around eight months ago to the state government to burn its ivory. He now thinks “it won’t happen anytime soon”.

There could be various reasons for such delay in burning ivory.

Ivory fetches incredibly high prices in international markets in countries like China and Japan. MD Madhusudan, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, speculates that indecision by the forest departments to burn ivory could be due to the belief that the ‘white gold’ is so valuable in monetary terms, that it becomes difficult to destroy. Jose Luis, head of Law & Enforcement, Wildlife Trust of India, sees a more practical problem: A lot of the seized ivory is in the form of statuettes of Hindu gods and goddesses. Burning such idols in public could trigger communal riots in the country. Luis also thinks that politicians and bureaucrats who might not necessarily be aware of conservation practices wield a strong arm in the hope that ivory will be legalised sometime in the future and they can profit from its sale. Madhusudan has been in meetings where political leaders of a state have discussed the value of ivory in its custody. He reckons such thinking about ivory should not be encouraged as it cannot be traded.

Largely, no clear central or state policy on the burning of ivory has seen its stockpile increase over the years.

However, scientists, illegal trade experts, conservationists and law enforcement officials support the public burning of ivory. They concur that burning ivory sends a powerful message to poachers that confiscated contraband ivory will be destroyed, killing the supply. There have also been instances in the past where ivory stored under surveillance was pilfered.

Guarding ivory confiscated from poachers and from elephants who have died due to natural causes is a very expensive undertaking. It costs several lakhs of rupees every month for the forest departments to guard the ivory in their possession. Madhusudan says, “By having an entire country pass a law saying to own ivory, to trade in ivory, to acquire ivory is illegal implies that there is a moral disapproval of possession of ivory. Burning it will send a clear endorsement of this disapproval.”

Previously, states like Karnataka have donated ivory from their stockpiles to the army as a souvenir to be hung in their camps and messes. Such a practice of reducing an elephant to two sticks of ivory is equally obnoxious and has been since discontinued.

India’s leading scientist, Raman Sukumar, who has worked on Asian elephants for the past three decades strongly recommends that a part of the ivory stockpile be utilised for research and scientific purposes. He reckons creating DNA profiles of elephants will help in developing forensic techniques for tightening law enforcement. For instance, the ivory caught in a seizure in Singapore few years ago was traced to Congo and Tanzania in Africa. Similarly, the biggest capture in India in Delhi last year was traced back to forests in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Another vital piece of information to be gathered from tusks of the elephants is to reconstruct the life of an elephant and the ecological history of a place. An elephant starts growing tusks from the age of two. If you have ivory from a 60-year-old elephant, it can unravel information about different climatic and environmental conditions it has encountered from one area to another. It can also tell what the elephant has been eating — grass or barks of trees, etc. Similarly, a tusk can also throw light on the changes a forest would have gone through over the years (from the dietary habits of an elephant). To gather more information, Sukumar advises keeping different samples of ivory from different parts of the country belonging to elephants of various age profiles.

Elephants across their range in Asia and Africa are going through one of the most challenging times. Almost 30,000 elephants are killed every year around the world, out of which India accounts for 25-30 deaths. There are only around 35,000 elephants left in the wild in India. In the past 30 years, more than 3,000 elephants have been killed in India alone. The least we can do is to not commoditise a species whose very existence has come under threat due to demand for a product derived from it.

A strong message that an elephant alive is worth more than dead, and not only a bearer of ivory, needs to be heeded.