The elephant in the room
The impressive cover design of Ivory shows, against a black background, the forward charge of a magnificent grey tusker. Overlaying the darkness, in white, are the words, Ivory and Power and Poaching in Africa. This seems suitably symbolic and is an invitation to partake of what looks like a feel-good read. Here is a binary opposition between black and white – poachers are evil are must be prevented whilst elephants are beautiful and must not be shot.
But, for Somerville, this is all too simple and, in fact, wrong. Since 1981, first as a journalist and now as an academic, Somerville has made a study of elephant conservation in Africa. The immediate stimulus for the book originates from the period in the 2000s when links were being suggested between ivory and insurgency. Were terrorists selling ivory to fund their revolts? Somerville set out to find the truth.
Somerville’s main interest is in the African “supply end of the ivory trade” tracing it from ancient times through the 19th century and up to the present day. He describes how elephant hunting has developed from a need for food and leather to big game hunting, then to the provision of ivory for luxury goods all over the world, now particularly driven by, the recently materialistic, China, Vietnam and other East Asian countries. But at the same time elephants can threaten the homes and crops of their human neighbours and thus have always been killed in a land struggle between man and beast.
Dismissing the insurgency explanation as unimportant and peripheral, Somerville suggests rather that the ban on ivory exports in 1989 exacerbated the situation, putting the animals in even more peril by encouraging a black market , thus resulting in an escalating decline in elephant numbers.
Somerville thinks that conservationists, to whom he dedicates the book, need to work with the people who live on the elephant ranges since they are the ones who both know elephants, and live, at subsistence level, by the illicit trade in ivory. He rejects the concept of ‘poaching’ since traditionally the hunting of elephants has been the mainstay of the local economy. Disenfranchising the population and criminalising their historic activities endangers wild predators of all sorts. Negotiated regulation, perhaps, may be better than bans. Hunting quotas allow communities to expand tourism, sell ivory and, indeed, kill elephants to keep their families safe. People would have control over their homeland and its wildlife. They would then see poachers as the enemy and prevent their illegal activity.
Somerville also points out the complexity of the power structures involved, which, of course, include politicians in African nation states but also rival conservation groups and non-governmental organisations. Each grouping has its own, often, contrasting approach and desired outcome, and being ‘pressure groups’ of one type or another, each selects whatever ‘facts’ best fit their argument. He writes that their publications contain “a high degree of advocacy, emotional appeals and material designed to generate passion and raise money, rather than giving a fully accurate and sourced account based on research”.
Further complicating the situation is the enthusiastic support of celebrities such as Obama, the Clintons and The Duke of Cambridge all of whom advocate total bans. Perhaps they should be sent complimentary copies of this book.
Somerville is a fan of alliteration: power/poaching, ivory/insurgency, people/pachyderms, exploitation/enchantment, corruption/crime/conflict. This stylistic tic can be forgiven since the subject is important: how can elephants be protected from the rapacious and growing ivory market?
Somerville tries to present a factual, non-political account. Whilst this seems commendable it is important to remember how Ivory is marketed: the black and white jacket is designed to attract readers and sell the book. Another exploitation of the elephant? Or an attempt to save them?
Somerville, K. Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa. London: Hurst. 2016.
A version of this review was first published on 22 Apr. 2017 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner p34.