Removed from Complicity

I recently gave a talk about ivory in a local (Oregon) community. Somewhere in my 30 minutes on stage I felt several members of the crowd begin to turn against me. This had never happened to me before. As soon as it was over I was approached by several (very agitated) guests.


An Ivory chess set

One of them owned a “precious” chess set made of ivory. Another spoke of a set of ivory pool balls that had been in his family for years. A third had an absolutely enormous tusk (judging by the picture he showed me on his phone) and “planned to go back to Africa for more as soon as time permitted.”

The elephants are already dead, they argued. What difference would it make if they sold their precious treasures? These are good questions. Ones I get asked all too frequently these days. Are these men villains? No, I don’t think so. I think there is a keen unawareness however, of how our actions as an individual affect the problem as a whole.

Would one ivory chess set in the market make a difference? No. How about a million chess sets? Or a trillion? This is the level of ivory that we are talking about here. There is so much ivory (legal and illegal) in the market now, as a result of so many elephants being killed in the last decade that my answer to that question is:

“Yes, that ONE ivory chess set, set of pool balls or giant tusk makes an enormous difference.”

ivory pool balls

A set of Ivory pool balls

Because it isn’t just one is it? It is a million chess sets, it is a million pool balls and it equals hundreds upon thousands of slaughtered elephants. Yet, as I spoke with these men they genuinely wanted to help save elephants. They could not understand how selling their ivory was, in any way making the problem worse.

Recently, I read an article in which a survey was conducted with several Chinese people to determine their attitudes towards the trade of ivory and rhino horn. The survey found some surprising results:

“The Chinese, as individuals are increasingly aware of the harsh realities underpinning the sale of ivory and rhino horn. But they feel removed from complicity, and not interested in taking a stand against it.”

Hmmm…that sounds familiar.

How can we possibly point our finger at the Chinese when we are just as removed from complicity as they are? At least one person at each speaking event has expressed wonder when I bring up the fact that the United States is one of the greatest contributors to the elephant poaching crisis. Yet, also at each event are people who own ivory and feel a sense of entitlement to be able to sell it, not pass it down, give it away or donate it but to sell it for cold, hard cash.

A friend of mine recently made a rather remarkable comment when she said, “Can you imagine if we were talking about selling treasurers and mementos of the Holocaust? If we were offering a tooth of a small child who died in a gas chamber for sale as a necklace? Can you imagine anything more horrific than that?”

No, I can’t.

Yet, there is destruction and slaughter on a mass scale going on as we speak. There is an elephant holocaust that without serious intervention will soon be over. The poaching of elephant’s is one of the world’s largest holocaust’s anyone has ever seen. While they are literally being wiped off of the planet, ivory is still being sold in a local store just down the street from where I live.

The question is: Why is owning a memento from a human holocaust so completely revolting while owning ivory from an elephant holocaust still considered so…valuable?