In 2013, the US participated in an ivory crush – many pieces of ivory (both raw and worked into art/jewelry/home goods) were crushed into dust. The pieces were likely worth millions of dollars and they were all destroyed.
Other countries such as Kenya have also had ivory mass destruction events.
Why? It is powerful symbolism – showing the world that ivory, no matter how highly the market values it, is not worth the environmental and moral cost.
Critics of ivory crushes worry that such radical displays of destruction will only make ivory more valuable and raise demand. But, when CITES banned commercial ivory sales in 1989, demand fell sharply. A decrease in availability, in other words, did not spike demand.
It is only in this century that there has been a resurge in demand, mainly from China and other Asian countries. This is due to several factors.
First, in the late 1990s CITES weakened their 1989 ruling, since southern African countries with large elephant populations believed they could properly regulate their ivory market and put the money earned back into conservation projects. This has proven to be flawed, with gangs often illegally poaching and pocketing the money instead.
Secondly, with rising incomes many Chinese saw ivory as a way to proudly display their newfound wealth. In China, ivory had for centuries been used in the most precious art, so to be able to say you could own some was a novel and very alluring concept. Fortunately, 2016 polls show Chinese are changing this attitude, with many young Chinese being concerned about environmental issues. Right before the New Year, China announced a plan to ban ivory sales, which is incredibly encouraging.
Thirdly, with the rise of the fast media age, shady medical studies showing the health benefits of ivory spread like wildfire, and many believed they finally found the magical way to purge toxins out of the body. Rhino horn was even more valuable, rumored to cure cancer. People who are ill (and their concerned families) are willing to pay for these “cures”, hoping for any relief.
All this led us to today’s crisis. Hopefully, public ivory crushes will help turn the tide and once again make the buying and selling of ivory be considered a shameful practice.
Photo: Walters Art Museum, western ivory art from the 1600s