By Jim Taylor
A small news report this week noted China had crushed six tons of confiscated elephant tusks and ivory carvings.
It's a symbolic gesture. Six tons may seem like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket of illegal trade in dead elephants. In 2012, some 22,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks; the year before, about 25,000.
Tragically, China is the world's biggest market for those tusks. Ivory has a wonderful feel, and can be carved into marvelously intricate art. Go into any market in China, and you'll find ivory for sale. It's considered a status symbol in China's growing middle class. Last year, according to the Guardian newspaper, the street value of ivory sales was higher than either gold or heroin.
China's symbolic demolition follows a similar action by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in November, using a rock crusher to pulverize six-tons of tusks, carvings and jewelry.
My rudimentary understanding of economics wonders about the wisdom of destroying all that ivory. The price of anything, I gather, depends on supply and demand. It seems to me that if you reduce the supply without reducing the demand, the price goes up. Which would increase the incentive for poachers to kill elephants or mutilate them with chainsaws. Wouldn't it?
That has, in fact, been the effect of the international trade ban that came into effect after Kenya first burned tons of ivory in 1989. Like heroin and cocaine, the ivory traffic went underground. If anything, the killing increased.
Surely, a better solution is to reduce demand. As the price falls, so should the incentive to murder elephants.
Yes, that's difficult. But it worked with tobacco. Far fewer people smoke cigarettes today than did in the 1960s.
Education is possible. When I came back from Africa in 1971, I brought with me several small ivory trinkets purchased in local markets. I gave one as a token present to a colleague at a company Christmas party.
"Oh," she said, with distaste, "that's ivory."
Until then, it had never occurred to me that ivory could be anything but desirable.
I have never bought ivory since.
I admit to a fondness for elephants that I don't have for, say, warthogs or whales. There's something almost sacred about a creature that can be so powerful and so intentionally gentle. Watching a mother elephant raise her newborn infant onto its tottering feet; watching a herd provide community care for its elderly matriarchs; watching a domestic elephant's affectionate relationship with its human - I cannot help thinking that elephants may represent a higher form of life than we humans.
The memories of elephants are legendary; their ability to communicate with each other over great distances baffles our understanding.
When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony died a year ago, two herds of wild elephants travelled about 12 hours through the night to gather at his home, apparently to pay last respects to the man who had saved their lives years before. They stayed for two days, then quietly padded off into their reserves again.
Granted, elephant herds can be hugely destructive. A rogue elephant can kill a human in seconds. Roving herds of wild elephants can destroy a rural farmer's crops in minutes.
So poachers can still, as John Frederick Walker of the World Policy Institute wrote last May, "find recruits among impoverished rural villagers in elephant habitats for whom a modest bribe represents a fortune."
"What's different about today's elephant crisis," he says, "is that poaching has gone professional. Increasingly, well-armed cadres are using night-vision goggles, rocket launchers, even helicopters to mow down herds of elephants for their ivory.
"Now that militant groups like the Janjaweed in Sudan, the Lord's Resistance Army (in Uganda), and especially Somalia's al-Shabab are involved in ivory trafficking, protecting elephants could become wildlife conservation's version of the war on drugs, a hugely expensive, dangerous exercise there'd be no hope of winning."
If we want to protect elephants - and I hope we do - the change must come from the consumer. Refuse to buy ivory. When you see someone wearing ivory jewelry, using an ivory letter opener or displaying an ivory carving, say an audible prayer for the elephant who gave up its life for that piece of bling.
Make ivory a prized possession of elephants, not of humans.