I remember an ornament which used to sit on the piano in my grandparents’ house. Fascinating to a child, it was a single curving tusk of ivory carved into miniature elephants of diminishing sizes. I liked elephants – Nellie from Uncle Mac’s radio programme, Elephant Boy on TV, the majestic Haiti from the Jungle Book, and even live specimens in the circus on Penzance Rec, though I hated to see them performing tricks at odds with their innate dignity. So I admired the carved tusk, and it was years before I made the connection that it represented one more slain elephant, another casualty of the ivory trade.
Who knew, or cared? The piano keys were ivory too, and so were countless other nick-nacks to be found on suburban shelves all over England. As late as 1982 Stevie Wonder and Paul Macca were brainlessly warbling the praises of “Ebony and Ivory”, cleverly identifying two of the world’s most threatened resources at once. Harvesting big game for our amusement used to be considered our birthright, like the empire from which they came. Ivory, animal skins and rugs with their furious heads still attached, other creature’s heads mounted on the wall, rhino horn inkwells, I can even remember a hollowed-out elephant’s foot used as an umbrella stand. Such things were relatively guilt-free until the wave of natural history documentaries started in the late 50s and have never stopped. They have been a revelation and a joy – that is until the last five minutes of every programme when the Message is drawn that these wondrous sights are a diminishing asset and that we might be the last generation to witness them.
For many years our response was non-existent. It didn’t stop macho males from taking hunting trips to kill lions in Africa or tigers in India in order to bring their bloody relics home. But now no-one can plead ignorance. Now I can wind back through the history of our pretty piano ornament, back through the traders who produced hundreds of them for the tourist trade, back through the sweat-shops in which men and boys sat cross-legged for hours to carve them for starvation wages, back to the hunter-poacher who would arrive in town with his wagon-loads of raw tusks, back to the abandoned rotting corpses of elephants, no further use to the hunter once he had routed out their ivory treasure. Guilt is here to stay, and I wholeheartedly applaud Prince Charles and Prince William for joining in the chorus of international outrage at the waste of precious species in the cause of gangster wealth.
But that’s all I applaud them for, and here I know I may start treading on the sensitive toes of many WMN readers. Producing one of the most excruciatingly cack-handed videos ever seen, they sat uncomfortably delivering their stumbling sound-bites, the true descendants of dozens of generations of big-game hunters of the past, who had either just been or were just going to assuage their own thirst for bloody fun by banging off at a few fat and harmless Spanish boars. Go figure, said the world’s media, and quite right too.
Being a chap I’m not immune to our innate hunting instinct. We all have it or we wouldn’t be here, but like our other inherited instincts most of us have learned to divert or sublimate them into something less brutal. To brush up my hunting skills I might play darts, to channel my need for bloodthirsty warrior victories I’ll watch rugby or football. I’m even a vegetarian, though I don’t preach at those who aren’t. But somebody please explain how the same person can wax emotional on national TV about the murderous doings of others and then pop out for a day’s shooting? If deer and boar are a nuisance in Spain I’m sure there’s no shortage of professional wardens ready to thin them out, so let’s not pretend. The only reason for shooting living things for sport is the thrill of killing them. If gangsters massacre elephants for illicit cash I can at least follow their logic if not their morals. But the only point of recreational shooting is to make living things dead, to target a beautifully evolved and organised part of this amazing world and turn it into a corpse. Just how big does that make you feel? And if I spy ivory now, I see only blood.