By Richard Conniff
Wildlife products are big business in China. And to outsiders concerned about dwindling numbers of species, the rabid desire for these products can be shocking. Running down the list of species they are eating, or otherwise consuming, to the brink of extinction, it’s easy to get the impression that China’s newly rich are utterly depraved. Shameless. Inhuman, even.
In fact, though, their appetite for wildlife products—from shark fin soup and pangolin stew to ivory trinkets—in some ways echoes our own 19th-century rise to wealth. We are the ones, for instance, who brought off the great slaughter of American bison, from 60 million animals down to about 700 in 1902. We alone are to blame for the mindless killing of billions of passenger pigeons, down to the death of Martha, the sole surviving female, in 1914. But those sad stories are already well known. I’m going to tell a hometown story instead, one that resonates with what China is doing to elephants in Africa today.
For many years, I lived in a Connecticut River Valley community that rose up entirely on the strength of the ivory trade. The rival companies at the heart of Deep River and neighboring Ivoryton, Conn., were makers of piano keyboards covered with ivory, and they dominated the ivory market in the Western Hemisphere. The river landing just below my house was an unloading point for ivory tusks. And at the beginning of the 20th century, the factory at the other end of my street was cutting the ivory of a thousand elephants a year.
When I lived there in the 1980s and '90s, people could still remember fertilizing their tomatoes with ivory sawdust. The local pond below the mill used to turn yellow with it, a local elder told me, and when he and a friend came home from swimming there as boys, “we looked like the Gold Dust Twins. How my mother would holler.”
For American buyers then, as for Chinese consumers now, ivory was all about status. In the prosperous decades after the Civil War, the piano was the essential “badge of gentility,” as one social observer put it, “being the only thing that distinguishes ‘Decent People’ from the lower and less distinguished…‘middling kind of folks.’ ”
At the height of the public craze for the piano, from about 1860 to 1930, demand from Pratt, Read & Company in Deep River and Comstock, Cheney & Company in Ivoryton helped determine demand for ivory in Zanzibar, the major trading center, and even the price paid for tusks in the East African bush, where the elephants were being killed. Then, about 50,000 elephants died each year to supply the ivory trade. At the risk of overstating the moral complications of what seemed like an innocent pastime, they died so girls in the rising middle class could display their musical talent and families could gather around the piano to sing. More....