Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants


Praised for the nuance and sensitivity with which it approaches one of the most fraught conservation issues we face today, John Frederick Walker’s Ivory’s Ghosts tells the astonishing story of the power of ivory through the ages, and its impact on elephants. Long before gold and gemstones held allure, humans were drawn to the “jewels of the elephant”—its great tusks. Ivory came to be prized in every culture of the world—from ancient Egypt to nineteenth-century America to modern Japan—for its beauty, rarity, and ...
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Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

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Praised for the nuance and sensitivity with which it approaches one of the most fraught conservation issues we face today, John Frederick Walker’s Ivory’s Ghosts tells the astonishing story of the power of ivory through the ages, and its impact on elephants. Long before gold and gemstones held allure, humans were drawn to the “jewels of the elephant”—its great tusks. Ivory came to be prized in every culture of the world—from ancient Egypt to nineteenth-century America to modern Japan—for its beauty, rarity, and ability to be finely carved. Elephants tusks were transformed into sensuous figurines, sacred icons, scientific instruments, pistol grips, and piano keys. But the beauty came at an unfathomable cost. Walker lays bare the ivory trade’s cruel connection with the slave trade and the increasing slaughter of elephants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1980s, elephant poaching reached levels that threatened the last great herds of the African continent, and led to a worldwide ban on the ancient international trade in tusks. But the ban has failed to stop poaching—or the emotional debate over what to do with the legitimate and growing stockpiles of ivory recovered from elephants that die of natural causes.
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Editorial Reviews

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Lust for ivory has left many casualties, human and nonhuman. Both poachers and soldiers have been killed in the so-called Elephant Wars; slaves have been worked to death carrying the great tusks across vast tracts of wilderness, and millions of elephants have been slaughtered for their treasures. In the 20th century, "the jewels of the elephant" became so precious that they brought their bearers to the very edge of extinction. A worldwide ban on ivory in the 1980s only opened a new chapter in the history of the trade. John Frederick Walker's carefully researched Ivory's Ghosts shows that elephant conservation issues almost invariably intersect with questions about crime, enforcement, economics, and human greed. A meticulous study of a much-discussed endangered species.
From the Publisher

“Well-written and informative.”—Foreign Affairs

“[An] entertaining chronicle...Ivory’s Ghosts admirably tells the story of this enchanting substance while making clear that as long as there are elephants, there will be ivory. Now, surely, it is ivory's turn to help ensure that there will always be elephants.”—Leon Lazaroff, The Hartford Courant

“Walker provides sensitive and insightful analysis...Ivory, he acknowledges, is as wondrous as the creatures that produce it...Walker sees the future of elephants not in an absolute ban on all ivory, but in a system of sustainable harvesting and wildlife management. It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure, but ivory can its bloody past...to become a self-renewing resource which can fund national parks, stabilize local economies, and preserve the impressive creatures that make it.”—Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History

“[A] tour de force examination of the history of ivory, humankind's lust for this exquisite treasure, and the demise of the elephant and human decency in the process of this unholy quest...Walker is a scholar and a perfectionist, but his meticulous examination of the allure of ivory reads like a novel that is impossible to put down...Whether you agree with this approach to conservation or not, read Ivory's Ghosts if you have any affinity for the history and future of this magnificent animal that has been sacrificed over the ages for what amounts to the white gold of its teeth...This book is a provocative, fascinating and compelling read. Highly recommended.”—Georgianne Nienaber, The Huffington Post

“Walker colorfully illustrates the [ivory] trade’s history...While Walker doesn’t pretend to offer definitive answers to the threats these pachyderms face, understanding the importance of the issues he raises is critical to the survival of more than elephants. In this comprehensive work with a serious message, there is never a dull moment.”—Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure

Publishers Weekly

With a mix of appalled testimony and meticulous research, Walker (A Certain Curve of Horn) traces the story of ivory from Paleolithic times to the present and the devastation the ivory trade has wrought on African and Asian elephants-by one estimate, 2.8 million were killed between 1850 and 1914. At the height of the 19th century craze for ivory-which included a savage dependence on slaves to transport tusks to African trading centers-it was used for sacred artifacts, piano keys, pistol grips, toothpicks and billiard balls. By the 1980s, poaching threatened the last herds in Africa, leading to a worldwide ban on international trade, but with unintended consequences from laws so restrictive no ivory could be sold at all. By 1994, nine African nations had stockpiled 100 tons of "pickup" ivory, harvested from elephants that had died a natural death. This "great gift that the elephant leaves at the end of its life," writes Walker, should be sold to help conserve endangered herds, a controversial proposal that spotlights the deep divide between ardent supporters of continuing the ban and conservationists concerned about the future of the elephant, now "more important than the treasure it supplies." 16 pages of illus. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Conservationist/journalist Walker (A Certain Curve of Horn) discusses the history of elephants and the ivory trade from Paleolithic to modern times. Actor/director David Colacci (The 13th Juror) provides a well-paced and expressive reading, handling the scientific terms, African names, and jargon with error-free aplomb. The descriptive language works well in audio, though listeners might find the occasional references to illustrations disconcerting. The music beginning and ending each disc complements the reading. A high-quality production recommended for all listeners. [Audio clip available through brillianceaudio.com.-Ed.]
—Laurie Selwyn

Kirkus Reviews
The ancient, enduring allure of a substance linked forever to the destiny of its predominant provider, the wild elephant. Walker (A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Great Sable Antelope of Angola, 2002) takes a full-circle approach to the complex role ivory has played in human societies since prehistory. He enumerates glory and plunder, wealth and greed, all of it focused on the substance technically known as dentin, which comprises the fighting teeth, or tusks, of mammals ranging from narwhals, walruses, hippos and wild pigs to, of course, elephants. Ivory has been laboriously fashioned into personal decor for centuries by craftspeople on every continent. Its incorporation into items such as furniture, billiard balls and piano keys produced the demand, principally in the latter half of the 19th century, that led directly to the mass slaughter of elephants and the virtual enslavement of laborers required to carry tusks out of the bush. Revulsion at these practices, plus the development of modern composites as industrial substitutes, eventually resulted in a 1990 ban on ivory in international commerce, with the African nations harboring the majority of elephants agreeing to stop legal exports. No ivory can be brought into the United States except as a component of bona fide antique objects, and eBay recently barred the sale of ivory of any kind (the sanction takes effect in January 2009). One of Walker's major contributions is his analysis of the effect of this humanitarian drift on the actual plight of elephants. The African scene, he observes, is totally chaotic: a few pristine game parks on the one hand, starving herds in drought-ravaged areas on the other.Black-market ivory poaching still poses a major threat; elephants and humans constantly contest for habitat. Meanwhile, ivory worth millions accumulates from natural die-off and is securely warehoused. Why not sell it and use the proceeds, the author suggests, to help today's elephants?An impressively thorough study of ivory's fascination, the corruption it engenders and the ongoing debate over its ecological impact. Lecture tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles. Agent: Kim Witherspoon/InkWell Management
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802144522
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/2/2010
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 967,769
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Frederick Walker is a veteran journalist and conservationist who has been traveling and reporting on Africa since 1986. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Africa Geographic, Wildlife Conservation, and numerous other publications.
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Table of Contents

Prologue; 1898 1

Pt. 1 Shapes in Tusks

1 Mammoth Teeth 9

2 Tribute and Treasure 25

3 The Master Carvers' Medium 49

Pt. 2 Ivory Under the Saw

4 Piano Keys and Billiard Balls 83

5 "A Tooth of Ivory and a Slave to Carry It" 107

6 Ivory Hunters 136

Pt. 3 The Elephant Dilemma

7 Researchers and Poachers 157

8 The Ivory Ban 183

9 Elephant Dreams, Elephant Realities 221

Epilogue: 2007 249

Notes 259

Acknowledgments 291

Illustration Credits 295

Index 294

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