Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Antiquities Collector and the Elephant

In an earlier post here I made reference to a collector’s idea that since a lot of antiquities were already on the market, there was obviously a lot of them, and so (it seems to have been argued) one could take more; this author seemed to be of the opinion that a few million more or less is a sustainable loss.

I would argue this is manifestly not so. I originally intended to discuss this aspect further there but got sidetracked when I spotted a fallacy in the mathematics. I’d like to return to the original idea here.

Although it’s a much used (some would argue over-used) analogy, I see the antiquities trade as a very close parallel to the trade in elephant ivory in several ways. There is one clear difference, elephants breed and have baby elephants; archaeological sites from all periods of history (except our own) are a finite and non-renewable resource. This, however, makes the parallel even more telling. We are all of us aware that there is a limit to the number of elephants that can be killed before the depletion of even a renewable resource becomes unsustainable. In the case of elephants at least, we know that we reached that stage many decades ago. In the late 1970s for example, there were still 1.2 million elephants alive in Africa, now the number is half that (5-600 000). This number is still dropping, almost entirely due to illegal slaughter for their tusks which are made into valued ‘art objects’.

The international community recognized the danger this created for the natural environment and elephant populations in particular and introduced legislation to help combat the problem. In 1989, most international ivory trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates trade in threatened and endangered species. The restrictions banned ivory trade except for ivory from elephants that nations legally culled from their herds or those that died naturally (or if the ivory was old, from official stockpiles of previously seized ivory or of fossil origin). For a while things quietened down, only China and Taiwan continued to trade in ivory, though the Japanese market (chiefly for hanko seals) also continued to flourish.

In recent years however according to wildlife conservation groups, poachers in Africa are now killing more elephants than they have at anytime in the past 20 years. An estimated 23,000 elephants were illegally slaughtered in 2006 to serve the ivory trade. Between October 2004 and March 2007 customs officials seized 41 tons of ivory, thought to be only about one-tenth of the illegal ivory trade in that period.

Ivory poaching is now said to have reached critical levels with predictions that if nothing is done, the depletion of the population may reach such levels that the African elephant may be on the path to extinction by 2020. Thousands of elephants are dying a cruel and needless death to obtain their tusks. Much of the trade is in the hands of organized crime, some of the ivory going through Sudanese markets seems to be being used to raise money for partisan armies engaged in the civil wars in countries further south.

In May 2007 a study published in May by Care for the Wild International indicated that the United States is now the second largest market for illegal ivory after China, traders here are failing to comply with both CITES regulations and the domestic laws of their own country. Much of this ivory is used to make decorative items such as knife handles and gun grips.

So what is the source of this problem? Firstly the trade is very profitable. In China, high quality ivory currently sells for $750 (U.S.) a kilogram but contraband raw ivory is currently available in Africa for less than $25 (U.S.) a kilogram. Secondly there are not the resources to police the remaining herds and individuals in the source countries. The initial success of CITIES (which was widely quoted as having led to the “collapse of the ivory market”) led within five years to the lessening of controls and western financial aid to help fight the poachers. Thirdly the media has tended to keep the public unaware of the escalation of the problem. The fourth problem is that there is still a demand among buyers in the countries with stronger economies for ivory products. In part, it is argued by some that this is fuelled by the occasional controlled release of ivory from stockpiles and culling onto the markets, which seems to have lulled consumers into thinking “it’s all right” to buy ivory, but who do not enquire too carefully into its origin. In addition, the illegal ivory trade is given relatively low priority by prosecutors, and new agreements sanctioning limited trade have created a policing nightmare. Ivory poaching and smuggling are high-profit, low-risk activities.

This morning a search on the US internet auction site eBay found 253 objects, most of which were described conventionally as “pre-ban”, but it seems odd that in the second biggest ivory market in the world that among them are quite a few obviously new objects and (more importantly) raw material which have allegedly been lying around unused since 1989. This looks rather like the “old dealers stock found in a cupboard” story which seems quite popular among those trading Mesopotamian antiquities recently.

The parallels with the antiquities trade are striking. Most dealers in portable antiquities will assure us all that the market is almost entirely legitimate, does not constitute a threat to any resource, there is no need for any controls. Secondly the market can be incredibly profitable (Brodie 1998). As in the case of ivory poaching, the media concentrate on isolated instances of archaeological looting, rather than the problem as a whole, despite the best efforts of conservationists, the public still seems unaware of and unconcerned by the escalation of the problem. A further problem is that there is still a demand among buyers in the countries with stronger economies for antiquities, the assurances of the traders has lulled consumers into thinking “it’s all right” to buy portable antiquities without enquiring too carefully into its origin. The illegal antiquities trade is given relatively low priority by prosecutors, and the lack of a coherent set of laws hindering unregulated global movement are a policing nightmare. Antiquity digging, smuggling and trading, like ivory poaching, are high-profit, low-risk endeavours. [We may note calls from collectors to make available a controlled release of so-called ‘redundant’ antiquities from stockpiles onto the market which should be seen in the same way as arguments over the ivory trade, it may only increase demand].

Most conservationists concerned about the fate of the elephant agree that while resources in the source countries are over-stretched it would be facile to merely insist that "the only solution to the problem of the illegal ivory trade is better policing in the countries where the poaching is happening". The problem is not purely one of supply, it is also driven by demand, mainly from countries whose citizens should know better. The way conservationists in the market countries can help to stop the slaughter is to work to influence cultural attitudes about the ivory trade. Consumers need to be informed about the effects of their financial support of the ivory trade and persuaded that they really do not need an elephant ivory walking stick knob or toilet roll holder to make their lives complete. The way to stop the killing of elephants is not to change the law, for we already have very strong laws. In order for them to work to preserve the surviving elephant population, consumers all over the world have to unite and say 'no' and simply refuse to buy anything that can have come from the illegal trade. Glib assurances of the dealers are not enough, if a thinking consumer is to have any ivory at all around them, then let it be only that about which there is 100% certainty, which can be DOCUMENTED as being in that form pre-1989 or from officially-sanctioned sources. Anyone who is a bit concerned and has a sense of responsibility surely must be able to see that this is a conservation issue, not one of "ownership rights".

Ivory is not something that should be desired as a thing of beauty. Carved ivory should not be valued or displayed as works of art. Nearly all ivory products are derived from elephants that were specifically killed so that their tusks could be carved. We should not see it as a thing of beauty. It is not art. It is the carved body part of a killed elephant.
The same, I would argue, goes for archaeological artefacts. From the perspective of resource conservation, portable antiquities should not be desired merely as mysterious things of beauty to serve largely as classy geegaws enhancing interior decoration, investment, or to enhance self-esteem or raise social prestige. Archaeological evidence should not be ripped from its context by commercial artefact hunters, from sites which are deliberately and specifically targeted to produce collectables for profit. A contextless archaeological find is not art. It is the dismembered part of a trashed archaeological site, it is a piece hacked out of an unwritten history. Anyone who is a bit concerned and has even a modicum of interest in and any intention of taking responsibility for the care of the historic environment surely can see that this is a conservation issue, not one of "ownership rights".

Picture: One of the few hundred thousand African elephants which (we hope) is still alive (source:

Reference:Brodie Neil 1998, 'Pity the poor middlemen' Culture Without Context, Issue 3, Autumn 1998.


Ed Snible said...

Paul you make some good points.

I found this investigation by the Humane Society interesting. Turns out many dealers of ivory lie about it's origins and fake documentation.

Some people think private property rights could do better controlling ivory than CITES. (This is analogous to the ACCG position that PAS-like schemes could reduce looting.) The following paper is worth reading.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks Ed for that. It is not surprising that the Humane Society found that with a ban in place those wanting to shift illegally acquired stuff lie about its origins and fake documentation. This was my implication talking about those eBay sales yesterday. I am interested to note that (unlike what I was suggesting for both ivory and antiquities) the Humane Society immediately proposes an extreme legislative solution and does not advocate public awareness campaigns and relying on the sense of responsibility of the American public not to buy the goods. Is its apparent lack of faith in the reasonableness of buyers justified? So what about all those dealers in antiquities who cannot or will not reveal their origins? Should a collector interested in helping conserve the historic environment buy from them, unless they have 100% certainty about the legitimacy of the documentation? If it is no longer possible to buy ivory in good faith in the US, why should this same scepticism not be applied by consumers to antiquities?

I am totally puzzled by the De Alessi paper and what these “some people” think. I really do not see how he proposes making elephants (for example those in national parks) “private property” or how he sees them being managed. Branding, barbed wire fences, cowboy organizations… I wonder whether these “some people” have ever actually seen an elephant outside a Dumbo film. What an odd article which seems to me driven by some weirdo Wild West type political agenda more than a sincere desire to help conserve the natural environment. I do not agree with your parallel to the Portable Antiquities Scheme as such (I think your inference is object-based rather than site-based), but it is indeed the case that in British law - except in Northern Ireland where the situation is more complex - it is the landowner that decides who can and cannot hunt for artefacts on their land. Many landowners and tenant farmers do indeed refuse (some of them on conservation grounds). This is where the idea of “metal detecting rallies” and ‘club digs’ comes from. This is also why we get so-called “nighthawks”. But then, is the archaeological heritage of non-PAS countries “ownerless”?

It is not making the archaeological sites or wild elephants private property that is the important thing, its informed restraint by responsible consumers that I am advocating, because it is in their hands to make all the other measures work.

Paul Barford said...

There is also some discussion of the relation between the ivory trade and the antiquity trade here

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