Nature has repeatedly been portrayed as the enemy of human, which has evolved into the civilized urban environment. The common narrative follows along the line “First humans lived like savages in forests and caves hardly different from apes and other animals. But then, we started to think and invent technology to assist in our daily life. We learnt how to control fire, domesticate animals and settled. Ostensibly now, in the 21st century, we have reached the climax of the story.” Because, indeed, man has managed to thoroughly control most of nature: not even space limits the human desire of command of nature. This article looks at the human domination of the largest animal on land, the African elephant.

Despite his impressive height of up to four metres the African elephant faces serious threats. This was demonstrated by the decrease of its population of more than sixty percent within a decade. Their number in 1980 was an estimated 1,3 million, having shrunk to a mere in 600,000 in 1990. In Chad alone the number of elephants dropped from a proud 400,000 in 1970 to 10,000 today. This is what numbers state, but what is the story to tell?

Throughout history man has been interested in showing signs of his power which often equalled domination of nature. Teeth of predators have adorned necklaces, and killing animals for pleasure is an activity still enjoyed in many cultures today. The African elephant does not form an exception and its ivory has constantly been longed for, with demand in very different cultures and times. Trade in the valuable tusks can be traced back to pre-Roman times. Continuously ivory has served the rich and mighty as a symbol of precisely their wealth and power. In later European epochs ivory has been used for piano keys, billiard balls, pipes and jewellery. However, this got out of fashion in our modern plastic age. If we do not use elephant teeth for our toys anymore, why has the number of elephants decreased so significantly?

China. The media and scholars alike name and shame China for its large demand of ivory. In the Far East ivory serves as a status symbol and allegedly endows you with good luck. In China ivory statues and jewellery are a prized accessory and the new wealthy class does not hesitate to show off with it. In many Chinese towns you can find ivory items in designated stores. Guangzhou, for instance, is famous for its ivory carvings. A BBC report found out that more than ninety percent of the ivory confiscated in Kenya was destined for China or its East Asian neighbours.

In China ivory is a symbol of good luck and wealth.

However, the international community has recognized the danger of the diminishing African elephants and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) decided in 1989 to ban all ivory trade. 180 parties signed the document, making the sale and purchase of ivory illegal. Some signatory states pursue poachers with guns. The rangers, sometimes even army, trying to defend the elephants have often a shooting order. The conflict between man and nature has thus become a fight between man and man over nature.

But who are the poachers? Many regions hosting large groups of elephants, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from severe political instability and poverty. The price of a large tusk on the Black Market, however, can reach up to 10,000 dollars. Thus the temptation of the “white gold” lies at hand. The poachers often have to borrow the money for the gun and can afford only some bullets. The elephant mostly does not die immediately, but suffocates for hours. The poachers only saw off the tusks out of the face. Apart from the prosperity of wealth, the lack of communal leadership and education determine the job as a poacher. Another problem is the widespread corruption which enables the smuggling of illegal ivory through customs and across borders.

Last year about 30,000 elephants were poached illegally.

The CITES ban has been criticized for criminalising poachers and out casting them, making it more unlikely for them to abandon their business. Additionally, the black market price is kept high due to the small supply. However, the ban has also proven effective raising awareness about the misery. Indeed, CITES sends a strong signal, demonstrating that we might have overcome the evolutionary destiny of dominating nature. Maybe the international community started to recognize a worth of nature apart from economic models and individual gains. Maybe.

Picture: National Geographic/ STE

8 thoughts on ““White Gold”- changing symbol of wealth and power?

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