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Bead Commentary 1

Was the Ivory Sale a Mistake?

Since the worldwide ivory ban in 1989 poaching (that is the horrendous, bloody slaughter of the world's largest land animal) has stopped, right?

Wrong. While efforts in some African countries have led to a decrease in this practice, it has undergone a revival in India. India is estimated to have only 25,000 elephants and only 1500 of them tuskers (adult males). Both in 1996 and 1997, 100 tuskers were killed. The figure is expected to grow in 1998-9.

The blame is increasingly being put on Japan. In Japan, ivory is the preferred material to make seals (hanko or inzai; chop in Chinese) with which to sign letters. Indian ivory is easier to carve, is more durable and is considered more beautiful than the African variety.

Unlike most countries, the sale of new ivory is not illegal within Japan. This loophole allows for the smuggling of poached ivory, which sells in the first instance (but not at retail, you can be sure) at half the price of legal ivory.

The source of legal ivory in Japan is the recent sale of 60 tons of tusks from Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. These impoverished southern African states had large stockpiles of ivory confiscated from poachers or removed from elephants that died a natural death. They appealed to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to sell the ivory and in April were allowed to ship the material to Japan.

At first glance, this seems an equitable solution. Poor countries make some money. A rich country satisfies its demand and no elephants are hurt. Unfortunately, the desire to have a valuable and restricted material or thing fans the fuel of appetite, or should we say greed? Not only is the ivory craved, but the wholesale price of a tusk has also doubled in a decade, despite curtailed global demand.

Most Indians are appalled at the idea of killing elephants, considered holy as the favorite God Ganesh. Tame elephants still work and are gleefully welcomed all decked out in paint and cloth to add festivities to any gathering. However, at an initial price several times the average annual wage, the poorest of the poor, tribal people living near the forests (and often without Hindu proscriptions against taking life) can be and are increasingly encouraged to kill the mighty pachyderm.

Japanese dealers go to Ahmedabad (Gujarat) and Jaipur (Rajasthan) to buy ivory. Last year, the Indian police seized 600 kg (1320 lbs.), including 100 rough cut seals. The major smuggling routes are through Dubai, mostly by Indian nationals and overland through Nepal and Bhutan with lax customs to the "ivory triangle" of China, Hong Kong and Macao. Via these routes, the material ends up in Japan.

Sources: While in India the first four months of 1999, this issue was a hot topic in the press. Most of the specifics here come from Julian West 1999 "India's elephants slaughtered for Japan's ivory market" The Sunday Telegraph (London) 9 May, p. 29. West is the Delhi correspondent for the Telegraph.


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