Protecting God's creatures

February 9th, 2017

Why are ivory bans needed?

We’ve all heard the phrase ebony and ivory, but where do these products come from? To be honest, until I started researching this article I hadn’t thought much about it. I just assumed musical instruments such as pianos and other decorative items were made from goods obtained from legitimate sources. Ebony is a type of wood obtained from tropical trees in India and Sri Lanka. Ivory usually comes from elephants, primarily ones that have been illegally slaughtered for the sole purpose of harvesting their tusks.

In June 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced new rules aimed at curbing the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. In January of this year, China did the same. The United States is the second largest consumer of poached ivory, next to China. Before the new guidelines were adopted, ivory could be sold in the United States if there was documentation that it was brought into the country before the animal was listed as endangered or if the elephant died of natural causes. The goal of these new rules is to restrict ivory sales to genuine antiques (such as statues and chess pieces) and musical instruments made with less than 200 grams of ivory. The change was a win for animal rights advocacy groups who saw that traffickers were using the legal purchasing of ivory products as a cover for illegally importing ivory sources.

A 1989 international ban on trading ivory did little to stop the killing of elephants for their tusks. Some experts believe it actually got worse. Because the 1989 ban didn’t apply to ivory obtained before that date, elephant poaching continued, with traffickers passing off their ivory as old and supposedly legal. According to the World Wildlife Federation, there were between three to five million African elephants a century ago, but now only 415,000 African elephants live in the wild, mainly due to poaching for ivory as well as loss of natural habitat. 

Experts estimate the slaughter of elephants for their tusks accounts for 96 deaths per day. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an elephant is killed every 15 minutes for its ivory. The illegal trade of ivory has doubled worldwide since 2007 and tripled since 1998. U.S. border agents seized at least 1,165 ivory specimens between 2009 and 2012, a small fraction of what’s actually being illegally traded. Illegal ivory comes in the form of tusks, jewelry, trophies, carvings and piano keys. The IFAW makes it clear that every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant. The population of wild African elephants is declining by eight percent every year. If this rate continues, these elephants will be extinct in 20 years.

Why China’s ban is important

Because China has the largest ivory market in the world, the government’s announcement to end their ivory trade by the end of 2017 is a significant step toward reducing the demand for ivory and in turn reducing the supply brought in by traffickers. The hope is that as demand for ivory goods slows, so will the killing of elephants. The government also plans to educate the public on how the ivory trade harms elephants and will put current ivory carvers to work on other projects.

China’s desire to become a leader in environmental stewardship coincides with its desire to increase its influence in Africa. Chinese president Xi Jinping instituted a series of ecological reforms after he came to power, including publicly crushing six tons of ivory. According to PBS NewsHour reporter Mark Scialla, the Chinese have realized that as long as they play a role in an industry that’s hurting tourism and funding terrorism in Africa, their reputation with those countries will suffer.

Advocates hope the ban by the Chinese will convince other countries such as Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan and the United Kingdom to do the same. But concerns remain, including what the government will do with its massive stockpiles of ivory, estimated at between 20 and 30 tons. And even though 34 legal processing facilities and 143 trading venues will be closed, black-market traders will be harder to shut down since ivory supplies still exist.

Where does demand come from?

According to a 2012 article by New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, around 70 percent of illegal ivory goes to China. One pound can be sold for as much as $1,000. The rise of a wealthier Chinese middle class has fueled demand, and a well-oiled trafficking network has made ivory products easy to purchase. Ivory can be obtained from other animals such as walruses and rhinoceroses, but elephant ivory is highly prized because of its particular texture. It’s durable and easy to carve without splintering.

Why do people desire pieces made from ivory? The same question could be asked of diamonds. Why do we desire something just because it’s a status symbol or the sellers convince us it’s valuable? But for the Chinese, ivory is also valued for its historical significance, dating back to the sixth millennium B.C. Archaeologists have recovered buttons, hairpins, chopsticks, spear tips, buckles, billiard balls, and many other utilitarian items dating back thousands of years. (An interesting side note: Steinway stopped making pianos with ivory keys in 1982.)

Why elephants are important

Elephants are grand, beautiful creatures that have been revered for thousands of years. They’re symbols of strength, power, wisdom and longevity. According to the charity organization Save the Elephants, they’re one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, capable of strong emotions. For African people, elephants are respected and adored as icons. Because of their attraction to tourists, wild elephants also support the economy.

African elephants play a critical role in the ecosystem as well. They use their tusks to dig for water, providing water for other animals during droughts. When they eat, they create gaps in vegetation that make paths for smaller animals. They also disperse seeds through their dung; some trees are reliant on elephants for spreading their seeds.

How Christians can help

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has a Faith Outreach program, designed to “engage people and institutions of faith with animal protection issues, on the premise that religious values call upon us all to act in a kind and merciful way towards all creatures.” They encourage individuals and small groups to read and study Every Living Thing: How Pope Francis, Evangelicals and Other Christian Leaders Are Inspiring All of Us to Care for Animals, a collection of teachings on animal protection.

They also offer a video series titled Living Legacy: Faith Voices on Animal Protection that features discussions on how faith shaped the lives of historical figures such as C. S. Lewis, William Wilberforce and other animal advocates. For example, Wilberforce, an evangelical member of Britain’s Parliament, was an abolitionist known for championing the equal rights of all human beings in the 1800s. He also passionately fought for the welfare of animals, “seeing a direct link between how humans treat animals and how they treat their neighbors,” says the Humane Society’s website.

The HSUS promotes volunteerism and the creation of habitat shelters for wildlife that also provide spiritual nourishment to communities. Their Faith Advisory Council includes leading scholars and representatives from a range of denominations. These members serve as leaders, reminding people to be responsible caretakers of God’s creation. HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle says, “Religious leaders have led the way in confronting cruelty to animals, and they’ve always had a prominent place in our organization.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus