Of Ivory and the Survival of Elephants

At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife

by Raymond Bonner
Knopf, 322 pp., $24.00

Battle for the Elephants

by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, by Oria Douglas-Hamilton, edited by Brian Jackman
Viking, 368 pp., $35.00

The Fate of the Elephant

by Douglas H. Chadwick
Sierra Club Books, 492 pp., $25.00

Elephant: The Animal and its Ivory in African Culture

edited by Doran H. Ross
Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 413 pp., $39.99 (paper)

In Communist China the ownership of dogs is illegal. Enforcing the law are the Dog Police who shoulder their way into homes where a dog is suspected, find the dog if one is present, cram it into a canvas bag which they have brought for the purpose, and in front of the owners and also the neighbors they club the dog to death.

Horrible? To us, perhaps, but not to the Communist government officials, who regularly execute dogs in this manner for ideological reasons. Overburdened by a human population that threatens to exceed its food supply, the government reasons that food is better consumed by human beings, and that dogs have no place in the equation. That an offending dog’s owners might be feeding their pet with shares of their own rations is simply not worth considering. The very existence of the dog is considered a threat, and the dog is dealt with accordingly.

Few of us in the West would see ourselves as participants in similar brutality, and yet we are. The fact escapes us merely because, like the actions of the Dog Police, our own actions are guided by ideology and little else. That we must exert near total control over animals in our sphere still seems of paramount importance to many so-called conservationists; that animal populations can manage themselves and can regulate their own numbers seems to some an anathema. I am speaking in particular of the African elephants, subject of much controversy.

Central to the controversy is the international ban on ivory, proclaimed in the hope of removing the incentive for ivory poaching that had caused the collapse of the East African elephant population. Opposing the ban were the Southern African nations, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and Botswana. By and large their officials control poaching so that, far from being endangered, elephants are growing in number. The game managers, who had used the sale of ivory to manage the game parks, claim they should still be free to profit from ivory. And there’s some truth in these claims. In the past ten years, large numbers of elephants have appeared in certain game parks in southern Africa. Why?

Actually, nobody knows why. Commonly, reproduction is blamed for the increasing numbers, but since elephants are extremely slow at reproducing, the explanation seems flawed. A female elephant must be about fourteen years old before she can become pregnant; gestation takes almost two years, and her infant must be three or four years old before the mother resumes estrus and can become pregnant again. Therefore, for some of the local increases in the elephant population, especially for those in which adult elephants greatly outnumber immature elephants, immigration is a far more likely explanation. When elephants are disturbed by inhospitable conditions such as drought or poachers, they may try to seek safety elsewhere. The refuges they chose may be widely known to the elephant leadership, perhaps because the conditions there are suitable for their kind. The newcomers then …

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Letters

The Fate of the Elephants May 12, 1994