IVORY’S GHOSTS by John Frederick Walker


The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants
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The ancient, enduring allure of a substance linked forever to the destiny of its predominant provider, the wild elephant.

Walker (A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Great Sable Antelope of Angola, 2002) takes a full-circle approach to the complex role ivory has played in human societies since prehistory. He enumerates glory and plunder, wealth and greed, all of it focused on the substance technically known as dentin, which comprises the fighting teeth, or tusks, of mammals ranging from narwhals, walruses, hippos and wild pigs to, of course, elephants. Ivory has been laboriously fashioned into personal décor for centuries by craftspeople on every continent. Its incorporation into items such as furniture, billiard balls and piano keys produced the demand, principally in the latter half of the 19th century, that led directly to the mass slaughter of elephants and the virtual enslavement of laborers required to carry tusks out of the bush. Revulsion at these practices, plus the development of modern composites as industrial substitutes, eventually resulted in a 1990 ban on ivory in international commerce, with the African nations harboring the majority of elephants agreeing to stop legal exports. No ivory can be brought into the United States except as a component of bona fide antique objects, and eBay recently barred the sale of ivory of any kind (the sanction takes effect in January 2009). One of Walker’s major contributions is his analysis of the effect of this humanitarian drift on the actual plight of elephants. The African scene, he observes, is totally chaotic: a few pristine game parks on the one hand, starving herds in drought-ravaged areas on the other. Black-market ivory poaching still poses a major threat; elephants and humans constantly contest for habitat. Meanwhile, ivory worth millions accumulates from natural die-off and is securely warehoused. Why not sell it and use the proceeds, the author suggests, to help today’s elephants?

An impressively thorough study of ivory’s fascination, the corruption it engenders and the ongoing debate over its ecological impact.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-87113-995-5
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2008


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