Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Ivory Trade: Slowing Down an Unstoppable Force

Photo by Wikipedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Wikipedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Over Christmas, I was talking to my dad offhandedly about the lab-grown hamburger that was in the news earlier this year – basically, the burger is “grown” from scratch in a petri dish using stem cells and animal tissue. While this is still an extremely expensive process (the burger grown and consumed in London earlier this year took two years and reportedly cost $325,000 to make), studies indicate that in the long view, creating meat in a laboratory could greatly reduce the amounts of water, land, and energy that go into the process, while also obviously greatly reducing the required amount of livestock grown in the current meat industry.

Our conversation drifted away from lab burgers to talking about what other kinds of organic material could be created through this same process, and one of us brought up ivory. This seemed like a no-brainer – the ivory industry is as brutal as ever (2011 was reportedly the worst year for ivory trading since 1989, the year before international ivory trading was outlawed), and elephants (and rhinos, lest we forget) have been slaughtered without relent for decades in service of this $10 billion industry, to the point where there are only 500,000 elephants left in Africa. Scientists say that we are at a point where the demise of African elephants poses a real threat to the larger ecological structure of the continent at large, so their preservation is crucial to the longevity of the continent, if not the world, at large.

As I’m no scientist, I did what any curious soul might do and did some haphazard googling; it turns out that people on Yahoo Answers and Reddit have the same question that I do: “Why don’t we grow valuable products from undifferentiated cells?” Well, the “best answer” on Yahoo answers actually gets to a lot of the very real obstacles, namely that the whole industry was based on a superstition that animal horns and tusks hold magical powers, and that it is not the material itself that is valuable but rather what it represents as a hunted animal product – an “artificially” produced ivory would likely not hold the same appeal. The responder, who claims a PhD in Developmental Biology, goes on to discuss the technical limitations to such a process (basically, while it is possible, it would be incredibly expensive and would likely produce and inferior product that would be unlikely to fool anyone familiar with genuine ivory). Still, its an interesting idea, and there do seem to be people who have considered what a future with lab-grown textiles at hand would look like, at least from a design/fashion standpoint.

This is all preamble, though, to what I had initially imagined was going to be the focus of this post: earlier this week, the Chinese government held a public ceremony in which six tons of confiscated ivory (much of it already carved into statues, as you can see in the photo attached to the National Geographic report on the event) was destroyed in what looks like an industrial strength wood chipper. This was the first event of this kind to occur in China, though it comes on the heels of a similar event in the U.S., Denver specifically, last fall. These events are obviously largely symbolic – destroying harvested ivory doesn’t bring back the elephants that have already been killed, but it does theoretically draw more international attention to the issue and send a message to those within the illegal industry that governments are cracking down. There’s a great opinion article on National Geographic in the wake of the Chinese event that argues that, while these public ivory destructions are symbolically important, real actions will need to be taken if we really want to reverse any of the insidious trends that have been established.

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