Revival of Ivory Carving in India Bad News for Elephants
By Ranjit Devraj*
In spite of its sacred status, the Asian elephant is not safe, warn ecologists as the international conference on endangered animals gets under way in Chile, where delegates will hear proposals to lift restrictions on international trade in the elephant's prized tusks, the source of ivory.
NEW DELHI - The international trade in elephant tusks and their products is so ancient that the Old Testament mentions Malabar, now India's southern state of Kerala, as the source for the ivory imported by Solomon (970-931 BC), king of the Jews.
At least since biblical times, the art of carving and engraving in ivory, an exceptionably pliant medium in the hands of skilled artisans, flourished in Kerala only to be interrupted by a 1990 worldwide ban on buying and selling ivory under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The countries that are party to the Convention are meeting in Santiago, Chile, this week and next, and are being lobbied by five Southern African nations to ease the ban on international trade in ivory.
As a result of the prohibition, the steady supply of carved figurines, ornaments, chess sets, caskets and miniature furniture that flowed out of numerous workshops and showrooms in the by-lanes of Thiruvananthapuram -- Kerala's capital -- has slowed down, and elephant populations began to thrive once again.
But recent reports of a revival in ivory carving and of ivory seizures in Kerala and other centers of the craft in India, such as neighboring Karnataka, eastern Orissa and western Rajasthan state, has set off alarm bells among conservation groups and friends of the Asian elephant, the Earth's second-largest land mammal, after the African elephant.
''The ivory trade in India is seeing a comeback. Recent studies have shown that value-added ivory is available for the asking in selected locations of foreign tourist influx,'' says Tariq Aziz, project officer at the India office of WWF-India (Worldwide Fund for Nature, also known as World Wildlife Fund).
South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are trying to convince the 160 countries party to CITES at the conference in the Chilean capital Nov 3-15 to authorize controlled trade in ivory.
The governments of India and Kenya are opposed to the southern African proposal, arguing that even under the existing ban there is almost no international control of the elephant populations, and that poaching and illegal trade in ivory continues.
Acting on a tip from the New Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), in May the Thiruvananthapuram authorities seized four large ivory carvings, one of them weighing over 40 kg and measuring four feet in length.
''This seizure illustrates the extent of the illegal ivory trade in India. It is extremely alarming and does not bode well for the future of wild elephants,'' commented Belinda Wright, executive director of WPSI, an organization active in fighting poaching of numerous animals.
The confiscated carvings were all of Hindu gods, one of them, ironically, of the hugely popular Ganesha, "the god that removes obstacles" and depicted as having the head of an elephant and the body of a man.
Elephants are not only regarded sacred animals in large parts of South and Southeast Asia but are also an essential element t in religious and royal pageantry. But that status has not saved them from slaughter for their enormous incisors.
WPSI activists estimate that the four pieces seized in Thiruvananthapuram must have come off the tusks of at least three male elephants, probably killed in the Nilgiri forests of South India, where 65 percent of elephant deaths are caused by ivory poachers.
While both male and female African elephants have large tusks, only the male Asian elephant produces tusks long enough for ivory carvers. This has caused a serious imbalance in the male-female ratio of Indian elephant populations, especially in the Nilgiri hills, home to 6,000 to 10,000 elephants.
The WWF works with authorities in anti-poaching patrols and intelligence networks in strategic locations.
In the 1970s, CITES placed the Asian elephant in the ''no commercial trade'' category, while the African elephant was given ''managed commercial trade'' status.
That led to the halving of African elephant populations between 1979 and 1987, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), but it also forced the worldwide ivory ban introduced in 1989.
Conservationists say they cannot rest because African ivory is reaching the hands of the Indian artisans. ''There appears to have grown up in recent years a whole international network that links raw ivory to ivory carvers at centers in Kerala and several other states,'' said the WWF's Aziz.
''The only thing that will work for the elephant's survival in Africa or Asia is a complete worldwide ban on ivory trade and the ruthless burning of stockpiles as some countries have already done,'' said the activist.
But if the five Southern African countries win approval of their initiative at the CITES meeting in Chile, managed trade could be renewed, threatening the very survival of the gentle land giant.
* Ranjit Devraj is an IPS correspondent.