Arriving at the gates of Mala Mall game reserve on the edge of the Kruger National Park our entry was blocked by a matriarch and her herd. The elephants milled around, massive Africa-shaped ears flapping to keep themselves cool, some trunks were raised in a trumpet voluntary, and tusks gleamed as young calves were nudged to order. We watched and waited, awed, until they lumbered off, trampling the thorny acacia bushes in their path.
Nellies, as they are known in our family, have long fascinated me. There is a magnificence to their stolid wanderings across a savannah or through a forest, to their stoicism and familial loyalties. That is until riled, when their rage is tremendous.
Sometimes, in order to preserve both the health of the herd and the environment on which they depend, humane culling must be done. In African lore, when an elephant is killed, the tail is cut off as a sign of respect for the animal, and if a little cash can be made on the side, well who cares? That is where, purportedly, the elephant hair is obtained for the entwined bracelets so enamoured by tourists. A cheaper memento option than ivory but no less of an incentive to poachers.
Whilst I may not like to hear about the culling, what really sickens me is the mindless and cruel slaughter of any wild animal for their tusks, whether to be made into jewelry or ornaments or used by men ever hopeful of enhanced sexual prowess.
And yet the recent public crushing of two tons of ivory in New York’s Central Park did little to alleviate my disgust of the trade in ivory, or belief it will have an effect. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, more than 270 tons have been destroyed around the world in an attempt to discourage poaching, to send a strong message that laws in place to ban the trade will be adhered to.
I wonder though is this a knee-jerk reaction to the sight of bloodied carcasses, tusks wickedly carved from these aged and knowing faces ?
Should we not instead be debunking the cultural beliefs that magic cures lie in those majestic tusks or rhino horns? Educate the young, both in Africa, Asia and the West, that senseless killing endangers not only the animals existence but also the environment.
As reported by the Associated Press, Tiffany & Co, who were involved with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the recent New York spectacle, say “no price justifies slaughtering elephants for their tusks.” But does crushing tons of ivory, often pieces many hundreds of years old and of great beauty and cultural significance, really discourage that criminal element?
I would argue it does not. By all means crush tusks that have been newly harvested – in that way those actually involved in the gruesome trade are immediately impacted financially, and the incentive lost. Of course laws must be enforced and poachers given severe punishments for their cruelty. Of course the law should go after the grey and greedy money men and women trading, and also the law should go after the end user with far higher fines and penalties including significant jail time, along with public shaming.
And trading in ivory antiquities should be highly taxed. But to destroy art fashioned many years ago, in an age before much of the world knew of the horrors and environmental impact the ivory trade caused, is to my mind an act of public appeasement.
We cannot rewrite history, despite our desire to purge the memory of the cruel and inhumane treatments meted out to both humans and animals. We must never erase the past because to do so lessens its importance on our future. Instead we must build on it. What was acceptable to many of our forefathers is not now. We are more informed now, and have a greater awareness of the fragility of the world around us, but to destroy art and artefacts takes away some of those lessons of bygone eras and ancient cultures..
There is a place for ivory and rhino horn pieces. The same way there is a place for statues and art deemed offensive because of modern sensitivities. Museums and private collections open to the public are the repository for the world’s cultural history and art, good and bad. We visit them to be educated, enriched and yes sometimes horrified, but only with awareness and learning of our past will perceptions and cultures change.
Last year I interviewed a delightful octogenarian, Raymond Feldman, who’s had a stall at the London Silver Vaults for 62 years. Each sale, whether to Sean Connery, or the then Crown Prince of Thailand, or a grandmother from Bermondsey looking for something small for her first grandchild, is recorded in a black ledger along with thank you letters, receipts and requests. Silver naturally is his passion. Sometimes old pieces, a tea set maybe or sword, had ivory incorporated in the design. Mr Feldman stopped visiting trade shows or sending items to the US when customs officials started ripping off ivory adornments, thereby destroying these works of art, some of them almost priceless.
“How does destroying art help anyone?” he asked, suggesting instead we should be learning from it.
Netsuke, for example. First made in 17th century Japan, netsuke were the toggle, in effect miniature sculptures, made from bone, or jade or ivory to which were attached small containers, sagemono, hung on a cord from the obi, or sash, which in turn kept the pocketless kimono respectably tied.
Crushing and burning inanimate stacks of ivory and rhino horn in Central Park offers a powerful image, but a more horrifying image, and much longer lasting, would be to show pictures of mutilated elephant and rhino to the public, including our teens. Those teens are the guardians of the future. Show them the source of those trinkets. Debunk the myths of greater health and bedroom stamina.
For our grandchildren to step bravely into the world they must know their past, and understand the beauty and, sometimes, the gore of art while decrying and disallowing the continuation of such cruel practices.
And they must have a chance to see nellies in the wild.