A carved mammoth tusk in China, an alternative medium for some ivory carvers (photograph by Anne-Marie Bouché, via Flickr)

A carved mammoth tusk in China, an alternative medium for some ivory carvers (photograph by Anne-Marie Bouché, via Flickr)

China’s destruction of some 6.1 tons of seized ivory earlier this month may have seemed like a small dent in a country where around 70% of the illegal trade is concentrated, but it was an encouraging sway in the right direction. The rendering of the ivory to dust followed similar major moves in the United States, where six tons were destroyed in November, and the Philippines, where five tons were obliterated last January.

Illegal carved ivory (photograph by Bill Butcher) ((courtesy  U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region, via Flickr)

Illegal carved ivory (photograph by Bill Butcher, via U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region)

These episodes mark the first time there’s been public destruction of ivory in non-African countries, and they’re sparking wider concern for an enduring problem. Now there’s a push from conservation groups for Hong Kong to destroy the 33 tons of seized ivory it has in its contraband stockpiles.

As Grace de Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who met with the Hong Kong endangered species advisory committee, told the South China Morning Post: “The momentum generated around the world is good and it sends a message to people everywhere that if they had any misgivings that destroying ivory is a waste, now they understand. Ivory is not art, it’s a life; that message is strong.”

This declaring of ivory as “not art” points to the fact that the material is often carved into some sort of art or trinket, popular status symbols in China. There’s ongoing debate over what can be done to ease this demand and what medium carvers could use to replace the elephant tusks. Traditional walrus ivory crafters in the Arctic — such as with the Chukchi people, who live on the Russian side of the Bering Strait — have been working with prints instead, and scrimshaw artists have started turning more to “recycled” ivory like piano keys. But the ivory trade and demand in China and some other parts of the globe are much more massive.

Elephant tusk (photograph by by Sam Beddoes, via Flickr)

Elephant tusk (photograph by Sam Beddoes, via Flickr)

Hong Kong in particular has been a problematic entry point for smuggling. According to the Independent, last year between January and October some 15,939 pounds of illegal ivory were seized by customs there, a jump from the previous year’s 12,337 pounds. All that contraband represents thousands of elephants being slaughtered in Africa, where there are also ivory stockpiles in limbo. Kenya famously torched 12 tons of ivory in 1989 as a statement of their seriousness about stopping the trade.

The exclamation point to all these destructions is that destroying ivory is basically like throwing money into the flames. According to a 2013 New York Times article, ivory can fetch over $1,300 a pound on the Chinese black market. Tanzania, where some 81 tusks were seized this month, has in the past resisted destruction for this very reason, with leaders arguing that their estimated 100-ton stockpile of ivory could be sold to fund conservation instead of being part of a continued cycle of waste.

It’s this destruction that has caused some to propose turning the illegal ivory into a different kind of art, perhaps one that could be a statement on the bloody trade instead of just more beautiful objects. Other proposals have included the use of ivory from elephants that have died naturally, but this hasn’t made much headway. Some Chinese artists have taken the radical step of using mammoth tusks found encased in the Arctic tundra; however, as mammoth expert Dan Fisher of the University of Michigan told Agence France-Presse: “Mammoth ivory is absolutely a non-renewable resource, and it is absolutely being depleted, in part, by the commercial trade.”

This Thursday in Manhattan, the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation will hold a public hearing on how to improve the state’s laws and regulations to curtail its own ivory problem — back in 2012, around $2 million in elephant ivory was confiscated here. Obviously, the trade of ivory won’t be stopped overnight, but artists who work in the traditional medium and those who collect the carved tusks will have to be part of the solution.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

2 replies on “To Stop the Illegal Ivory Trade, You Have to Stop the Art”

  1. You say scrimshaw artists are turning to using recycled ivory, such as from piano keys, but if the new tighter restrictions make it too difficult, or indeed impossible, to transfer ownership of even old ivory (esp. if you don’t happen to have the right documentation for your old piano), or to transport it across state or international borders, where are people supposed to get recycled ivory from? This cannot be a solution to the problem if this too is being shut out, or shut down.

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