Agony and Ivory
July 16, 2011 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Agony and Ivory. "Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s 'suddenly wealthy' has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the specter of an 'extinction vortex,' Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it."
posted by homunculus (24 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
In happier elephant news: Beehive Fences Keep African Elephants Away From Crops
posted by homunculus at 12:36 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's not just elephants. In South Africa Rhino poaching has increased dramatically recently, with over 300 Rhino killed in 2010, triple the number killed in 2009.
posted by PenDevil at 12:54 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder how much it would cost to hire full time guards for the elephants?
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:22 PM on July 16, 2011

"Agony and Ivory" doesn't convey quite what it should when I keep hearing it in the tones of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder... :-/

I was wondering what Seattle could possibly have to the do with the story. R'ingTFA, it turns out a dude there developed a way to sequence DNA from ivory, giving a forensic tool to investigators trying to figure out where the poaching was happening. That man deserves a DB.
posted by anonymisc at 1:35 PM on July 16, 2011

By genetic quirk, a few male elephants are naturally born without tusks. Since tuskless elephants are not targeted by poachers, they now have a strong survival advantage over males with tusks. The proportion of tuskless males is reportedly rising, in both Africa and China. I wonder which will happen first: the extinction of elephants, or the disappearance of their tusks due to (un)natural selection? Will I live long enough to say, "remember when elephants had tusks?" or "remember elephants?" So sad, either way.
posted by Corvid at 1:45 PM on July 16, 2011 [8 favorites]

Can we genetically engineer the ivory-forming tissue into farm animals, and crash the market with indistinguishable, purer, product?

What? The use of genetic engineering is unofficially restricted to making farm products intended to greatly increase the use of pesticides (ca-ching!), and products to force farmer dependence on seed sales (ca-ca-ching!), and anyone trying to use this technology For Good instead of Evil will run afoul of method patents (ca-ca-ca-ching!)? Well, damn. :-/ )
posted by anonymisc at 1:59 PM on July 16, 2011

I don't normally think about having super powers, but reading this story makes me wish that I had the ability to appear out of thin air and punch various people in the face as hard as I could. I would probably spend a lot of time with the entire elephant killing industry, punching the faces of Chinese herbalists, wealthy businessmen, poachers, guides, ivory distributors, etc.

There are other industries I'd also visit, but this would be among the first.
posted by silkyd at 2:04 PM on July 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think there's too much conservation of elephants. Of course, it's easy for me to say that from my ivory tower.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:59 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

"completely guileless"

Does anyone have a link to the elephant guile study that confirms this?
posted by fairmettle at 3:56 PM on July 16, 2011

"completely guileless"

Does anyone have a link to the elephant guile study that confirms this?

Not only are they not completely guileless, but studies have caught elephants applying considerable guile. :-)
posted by anonymisc at 4:09 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I wonder what the profit from ivory is vs the amout you pay to go shoot the Elephant yourself.
posted by kzin602 at 4:22 PM on July 16, 2011

I would do this for free for 1-2 weeks at a time if I could be perched atop a bird's nest with a .22

I'd say a bunch of free-lancing soldiers with automatic weapons will have no problem taking you out before heading off to bag them an elephant. That's one of the many problems here -- lots of poor people, lots of ex-military firearms floating around, government officials making money on the side.

So yeah, at least ask for a grenade launcher before you volunteer.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:55 PM on July 16, 2011

Much more from Alex Shoumatoff.
posted by Jode at 5:04 PM on July 16, 2011

When can I stop caring about stuff? It hurts.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:10 PM on July 16, 2011

I've often thought that the 'endgame' of poaching was likely to occur when conservationists got together, raised money, and hired mercenaries to fight poachers. I don't think this day is really all that far off.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:36 PM on July 16, 2011

For more info on the Seattle-based researcher mentioned above, see here under Research Programs -> Elephants.

I was taking a course taught by Dr. Wasser when his research entered the mainstream news. He's a real character, with a jovial style, so it was hard at the time to take in the weight and significance of his work. I'm so glad to now be reminded of the difference he's making.
posted by illenion at 1:05 AM on July 17, 2011

I hadn't thought that rising economic situations in China would lead to mass extinction. In retrospect it should have been obvious though.

The real question is whether or not the situation in China can change before all the species with superstition or status attached to their parts are driven extinct.

Chinese conservationists are working to change attitudes in their country, but they're fighting enormous cultural inertia. Other than supporting those Chinese conservationists, both economically and otherwise, I don't know what can be done.

I'm not at all sure that conservationists will be able to cut off supply by guarding the animals. It might be worth trying, but the failure of the War on Drugs tends to indicate that when demand exists trying to stop supply is going to be less than effective.
posted by sotonohito at 6:08 AM on July 17, 2011

In response to Chinese consumption of rare species that 'belong' to other cultures, I say we all eat Panda in retailiation.
posted by Bubbles Devere at 5:16 PM on July 17, 2011

I think if I were Chinese, I'd be pointing to the fate of the aurochs, the European bison, the wolves, the bears, the boar, the auks, the American buffalo, the passenger pigeon, and the sturgeon, .... It's not as though only Chinese people have weird ideas about the trophy and consumption properties of particular wild animals.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:16 PM on July 17, 2011

"Can we genetically engineer the ivory-forming tissue into farm animals, and crash the market with indistinguishable, purer, product?"

I was thinking a little along the same lines, although not from the Island of Dr. Moreau perspective, exactly. More like manufacture tons of man-made counterfeit ivory and flood the market, taking away the poacher's incentive.
posted by captnkurt at 5:17 AM on July 19, 2011

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