Confessions of an Ivory Consumer

I acknowledge my role in endangering African elephants, and Western countries should too.

Shards from a stockpile of illegal ivory pulverized by French customs agents (Charles Platiau/Reuters/The Atlantic)

I have a confession to make.

As a young man living in West Africa in the early 1980s, I often bought souvenirs made of ivory. Usually, they were intended as gifts—a pendant, an earring, a piece of tableware.

In the scheme of things, I ranked as the tiniest of bit players in the global ivory trade. And yet there is no escaping what I seldom stopped to ponder at the time: Every one of these items came from a dead elephant.

Ivory received renewed attention this month following reports that the delegation of Chinese President Xi Jinping bought up so much of the material during a March 2013 state visit to Tanzania that, for a time, ivory prices doubled on East African markets. The group that made this allegation, the Environmental Investigation Agency, said their research revealed that the Chinese visitors smuggled the ivory out of Tanzania via diplomatic pouches, which by international convention are not subject to customs inspections. Beijing responded to the report in characteristic fashion, with an imperious denial and an almost routine insinuation that criticism of this sort was a fabrication by Westerners determined to sully China’s reputation.

If the story of the Chinese presidential delegation’s ivory buying spree is true, it is, of course, an inexcusable outrage. But it’s especially disturbing because China, the world’s largest consumer of illegal ivory, has recently been stepping up its pledges to help stop the poaching of wildlife and the smuggling of animal products—a crisis with which Chinese citizens, whose presence is booming across Africa, have been widely linked.

Westerners often tell this story with a heavy cultural emphasis, suggesting that there is something essentially East Asian about lust for products derived from endangered mammals like the elephant or rhinoceros, whether it’s the cachet attached to finely carved pieces of ivory since Chinese antiquity or the reputation of rhinoceros tusks—a reputation unsupported by science—for boosting male desire. As one State Department official put it, “China is the epicenter of demand. Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.” But I started this article where I did, with a confession, because I believe fixating on culture in this way misses the point.

I’ve been covering Africa for nearly four decades, but I am a latecomer to the wildlife scene, having always focused instead on the political, social, and economic life of the continent. This began to change earlier this year when I lived in Kenya for the summer and embarked on a series of safaris. During the great wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, I witnessed numerous lion and cheetah kills, along with reclusive leopards lounging in trees, prompting my Kenyan guide to note how fortunate I had been to spot so many big predators. I asked him about the history of the park’s lions, and was shocked by his answer.

From an original population of many hundreds in the early 19th century, Maasai Mara’s lions had been reduced to single digits in the last century, after a Western-led hunting spree in which Americans were major players. Researching this period back home, I learned that in 1909, immediately after exiting the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt went on safari in Kenya with his son Kermit—not to take pictures, as I had, but to bag game. Between father and son, they killed 512 beasts, including 17 lions, 11 elephants, and 20 rhinoceroses, and they brought back 1,100 specimens, many to be used as ornaments and trophies.

To locate the apex of African elephant slaughter, however, one must go back to the middle of the 19th century and the flood of Western treasure- and adventure-seekers to southern Sudan, which at the time was controlled by Egypt and Britain and contained the largest and densest elephant populations on the continent. Each winter, dozens of boats transported hunting parties up and down the Nile. A leading figure in this extended massacre was a Frenchman named Alphonse de Malzac, who terrorized humans and elephants alike in his search for ivory, reportedly cutting off the heads of any local Dinka who annoyed him. De Malzac’s ivory hauls earned him a fortune—they were so large that he required 500 porters to transport the tusks to the banks of the Nile.

The point of reviving history like this is to emphasize how big-game poaching and the acquisition of trophy items—like many other forms of environmental devastation—is something that ascendant societies have been doing as if it were their natural right for a very long time. (The United States, after all, is the second-largest market for ivory products, after China.) In this, as in so many other ways, it is China’s moment. And as flatly unacceptable as it is to decimate the world’s remaining elephant herds and to render extinct the more menaced rhinoceros, castigating the country without recognizing one’s own culpability is unlikely to win over many Chinese, who are of course aware of the retort “you did it first.”

If there is a particular cultural story here, it is one of timing. Whether in the case of unbridled carbon emissions, unchecked consumption by fast-growing middle classes, or the mass slaughter of large mammals, gunboat diplomacy or the direct colonization of other peoples around the world, China is returning to global preeminence at a time when practices once common among big, rising Western powers are either unaffordable for the planet or no longer morally or politically tolerated. For international peace, the survival of humanity, and ultimately its own good, China has to undertake an uneasy apprenticeship that involves breaking with many of the long-established patterns of the past.

In this regard, the global-warming agreement that the U.S. and China just concluded—a deal that prioritized shared interests over finger-pointing—offers a constructive model for work on other issues facing the two countries and the world, including assuring a future for Africa’s elephants. Their survival requires finding ways to communicate about a common good that doesn’t make an example of the Chinese beyond what is warranted. By themselves, dudgeon and outrage that focus narrowly on the present moment are counterproductive. As with climate change, and Western carbon production from the Industrial Revolution onward, such an approach must start with admitting the West’s own grievous sins.