What should we do with illegal ivory? Art.

asher jay anti poaching artwork
© Asher Jay

Following an August 7th seizure of more than 1,000 illegally poached elephant tusks, members of China's Endangered Species Advisory Committee are struggling with the dilemma of what should be done with the ivory.

Lana Lam at the South China Morning Post reports on the huge quantities of ivory that has been seized:

More than six months after the government scrapped plans to incinerate its ever-growing stockpile of illicit ivory, conservation officials are still struggling to deal with the estimated 16 tonnes of elephant tusks seized since 2008.

New figures show that 500kg of ivory has been given to schools for educational purposes since the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department decided donations would be a good way to dispose of the contraband.

But with just 3 per cent of the inventory leaving government hands this way, questions have been raised over whether school donations are the best answer as more ivory is seized, placing further pressure on the storage and security of the tusks.

Committee member, Katherine Ma Miu-wah is frustrated:

"In a way it's paradoxical, a Catch-22 situation. You want to preserve the ivory but it promotes cruelty. But to incinerate it, people feel it would be such a waste. Unless there's a better option, keeping it is a safe way to allow more time to think it through."

Using ivory in schools and universities for research is important, but I want to propose an alternative use of the remainder of this seized ivory. Art. Yes, art.

In July, after five tons of tusks were burned in the Philippines, Jaymi Heimbuch and I discussed alternatives to this method of deterrent on Twitter:

We can read about 1,000 tusks being confiscated or the many tons that are sitting in storage, but I think the tusks need to be seen for the horror of poaching to be fully appreciated.

Imagine walking into a room with walls covered from floor to ceiling in white elephant tusks. Perhaps there's a glossy, deep red floor for contrast and a symbolic nod to the bloody ways these tusks are obtained by poachers. In another room, individual tusks are paired with photographs of the macabre scenes from where the elephants were killed or left to die. Educational materials in the style of a museum would educate visitors on the poaching crisis and how the ivory market leads to these horrific acts. Revenue from admission could go to anti-poaching organizations. And, as Jaymi suggested earlier, each year the same tusks could be rotated to another country, another museum and another group of artists to create another exhibit so more people can learn about this important conservation crisis.

Wouldn't something like this be better than crushing and burning the ivory? Or keeping them locked away in the dark somewhere, neither educating or inspiring people to address the problem?

For a counterpoint supporting the burning of ivory, check out BurnTheIvory.org

Estimates suggest that 35,000 African elephants are being killed each year to satisfy the demand. At this rate, elephants will be extinct within the next decade across their range, perhaps sooner. The burning of confiscated ivory stockpiles worldwide would ensure that illegal ivory cannot be laundered into the market, fueling the continued slaughter of elephants. History has proven that the sale of ivory cannot be controlled nor does a legal ivory market reduce demand. By burning worldwide stockpiles, the international community would be sending a clear message to poachers and illegal wildlife traders about our collective resolve to fight these horrific crimes and save the elephant from extinction.

What do you think? Is burning a strong enough deterrent? Or is it a waste to history and a missed opportunity to educate?

IMAGE: Artist Asher Jay uses her work to make statements about poaching, conservation and environmental degradation.

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