My immediate response to the intricate carvings in these photos is awe — maybe even admiration. I can’t believe they are made by hand from one solid piece of material. With such detail and complexity, I can see why they would be coveted and sold at a high price.
The rub is that the material is ivory, and the cost is way more than just the literal price tag. Poaching elephants for ivory is nothing new — but now, “levels are currently at their worst in a decade,” according to the cover story of National Geographic‘s October issue. The article by Bryan Christy delves deep into the systemic, global problem.
Christy sums it up pretty succinctly:
“Although the world has found substitutes for every one of ivory’s practical uses — billiard balls, piano keys, brush handles — its religious use is frozen in amber, and its role as a political symbol persists.”
The preciousness of ivory has deep roots all over the world — appearing in Catholic iconography in the Philippines, for example, and Buddhist figurines in Thailand and China. The crux of the issue is revealed when Christy asks a collector if he ever thinks of the animal. “Not at all,” he’s quoted as replying.
So how do you put an end to something with such cultural significance? Christy’s article does a thorough job of exploring that and other questions.