Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Curbing the Killing by Keystrokes: EBay ivory ban

For the past few days, conservation blogs and news have been full of stories that from the beginning of 2009, eBay will ban all sales of items made of elephant ivory - Yielding to Conservationists, eBay Will Ban Ivory Sales. Lobbyists had been campaigning for the closure of the loopholes that de facto had existed in the existing regulation of the ivory trade, and unregulated internet sales were one of the biggest.

This is a victory for the conservation lobbyists who have been pointing out that it is the inability of buyers (and here US ones figured largely) to curb their acquisitiveness and ask where the raw material was coming from which has been directly responsible for the continued poaching of elephants in the wild, even in places where they are supposed to be protected. Good profits are still involved because despite existing bans there is still an unquestioning market for ivory, as a result elephants are being gunned down even in wildlife reserves, despite the presence there of armed rangers and other measures taken to protect them. I wrote on this depressing situation earlier and reflected on its relationship to the antiquities trade.

This is an interesting parallel to the antiquities market in several ways. First of all the current situation is a foil to the arguments of portable antiquity collectors that "it is not they who are responsible for looting", but the archaeologists who “do not guard sites against the looters”, or the laws "are ineffective". It is clear that in the case of ivory, the market and therefore the incentive for poaching exist because there are people willing to buy ivory goods no-questions-asked. Here internet-aided sales have a large influence. Conservation groups detail how much ivory they found being traded in the US alone through sites like eBay. They labeled it “Killing by Keystrokes” which is an interesting parallel to Elias’ “Collectors are the real Looters” epigram referring to portable antiquities.

It is the same with document-less antiquities. There in an incentive for people to go out with spades and metal detectors to dig up little scraps of the past from a local archaeological site while there are acquisitive people who are willing to buy them.

In the case of ivory, EBay faced with the criticisms of a whole bunch of animal rights and nature conservation groups has decided to do its bit to protect the elephant (and also of course its corporate image). Good for them, one can only applaud this decision and hope it will do its bit to curb the disgusting killing to give a few selfish individuals the hedonistic but perverted pleasure of owning a piece of dismembered elephant in the form of some kitschy gee-gaw. What I would like to know however is where are the archaeological and heritage lobby groups insisting they take the same sort of measures to protect the world's archaeological heritage from being similarly dismembered?

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