By Brian Sewell
The elephant is endangered. This enormous animal with flapping ears and a magnificent trunk is all we have to remind us of the size and strength of the prehistoric monsters that once roamed the Earth.
But this is no Tyrannosaurus rex. Instead, the elephant is a gentle giant and highly intelligent. It is affectionate with its young and troubled when another elephant is in distress.
Most remarkably, the elephant can respond affectionately to us if we are kind to it in captivity. In the wild it is not a menace to mankind unless provoked.
However, we are a menace to the elephant, for jutting from its great jaw are tusks of ivory — two creamy-white weapons of dentine, a hard material halfway between bone and horn.
For millennia, Man has used ivory for jewellery, decoration, embellishment, carvings, sculptures and paintings. The trade in ivory is, perhaps, as old as civilisation.
There are records of its sophisticated use in Ancient Greece for monumental sculpture.
In Ancient Rome, it was carved into ornaments and furniture, and early Christians used it for binding books of prayer, for holy images and reliquaries.
Ivory has always been valued for its rarity and beauty — but now the elephant itself is rare. Experts have been warning of that increasing rarity for more than 100 years.
In the 19th century, when we were importing tons of ivory to the trading houses of London and Liverpool — the great dock warehouses were known as ‘the Ivory Floors’ — a worried sceptic warned: ‘A day may come when the spread of civilisation will cause the utter disappearance of the elephant from Africa.’
That prophecy is close to being fulfilled.
And so Prince William has suggested that every artefact made of ivory in Buckingham Palace should be destroyed, ‘to send a message’ to the world’s poachers and traders who are hunting the elephants to extinction.
His concern is laudable, but this would be a gesture of no practical use. The truth is that it would have little effect on those who sustain the cruel ivory trade.
Would it make the Chinese think about their greed in buying ivories for their homes? Would the artists from Vietnam stop whittling? Would dealers in Zanzibar, India and the Far East instead try to make their fortunes in the import and export of, say, noodles and soy sauce?
No, of course not. They would rub their hands, recognising that such a gesture will — as does the burning of tusks recovered from poachers — simply raise the price. The less ivory there is in the world, the greater the value of the tusks that remain.
I fear Prince William would simply be preaching to the converted. In the West, we already reject ivory as a material for the carver, sculptor and jeweller. However, in China, Vietnam and Thailand, there is formidable demand.
Let the wealthy fill their homes and adorn their persons with ivory knick-knacks, and damn the elephant.
And so the great herds of Africa are reduced by the brutality of teams of poachers.
Imagine the bungled poaching of an elephant — no clean shot through head or heart, but multiple wounds that cause great pain and weaken the animal until it collapses. Its tusks may be taken while it is still alive.
Worse still awaits the elephant if the poacher has no gun, but a spear. Death is prolonged and agonising.
While I wholeheartedly support efforts to halt the activity of such poachers, I cannot see the sense in destroying priceless historic ivories.
If Prince William were to confine his Bonfire of the Ivories to the gewgaws of the tourist trade presented to members of the Royal Family on tours abroad, I could perhaps forgive him. They may be made of ivory, but they are hardly works of art.
But if the Prince is planning to stoke the furnace with anything in the Royal Collection — the art and furniture in the various palaces and royal residences — then he should pause, because the collection is held in trust for us, the British people.
Nothing in it is his to destroy — and much of it is art or craft of the highest degree.
Could we countenance destroying the ivory furniture of 18th century India bought by George III? Or the baroque South German cup and lid made in Vienna?
Imagine chucking all those Chinese fans onto the bonfire, followed by ivory silhouettes on black glass, fine English furniture inlaid with ivory and all the pretty playthings made by Faberge.
Where would it end? Would we each be asked, because of the ivory keys, to destroy our family pianos?
And why stop at ivory? Should we not make an example of everything made of tortoiseshell, too, for that is not the shell of the common tortoise, but of the endangered turtle?
I am convinced that to remedy an evil, the attack must be on the evil itself.
In the case of the elephant, that attack must be on the poachers, the chain of shady dealers, the shopkeepers, customers and cultures that will kill the very last elephant rather than put an end to their desire for ivory.
The political and cultural leaders of the Chinese are the obvious target. They have to be convinced that the trade must end and, in turn, convince their people.
Perhaps Foreign Secretary William Hague could whisper in a Chinese ear or two — or are we too desperate for China’s investment?
The only way to save the elephant is to deal with both ends of the chain of trade — a heavy hand with the poachers and sweet-talking with the politicians.
I’m sorry, William, but burning the Buckingham Palace ivories will not save the life of a single elephant.