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

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

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by John Frederick Walker
     
 

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Long before gold and gemstones held allure, humans were drawn to the “jewels of the elephant”—its great tusks—for their beauty, rarity, and ability to be finely carved. In Ivory’s Ghosts, John Frederick Walker tells the astonishing story of the human lust for ivory and its cataclysmic implications for elephants. Each age and each

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Overview

Long before gold and gemstones held allure, humans were drawn to the “jewels of the elephant”—its great tusks—for their beauty, rarity, and ability to be finely carved. In Ivory’s Ghosts, John Frederick Walker tells the astonishing story of the human lust for ivory and its cataclysmic implications for elephants. Each age and each culture, from ancient Egypt to nineteenth-century America and modern Japan, found its own artistic, religious, and even industrial uses for the remarkable material that comes from the teeth of elephants and a handful of other mammals. Sensuous figurines, scientific instruments, pistol grips, and piano keys were all the result—as was human enslavement and the wholesale slaughter of elephants. By the 1980s, elephant poaching threatened the last great herds of the African continent and led to a worldwide ban on international trade. But the ban has failed to stop poaching, and debate continues over what to do with the legitimate and growing stockpiles of ivory recovered from elephants that die of natural causes. An insightful history of this precious commodity, Ivory’s Ghosts is also a wrenching—and utterly compelling—argument for a controversial mode of wildlife conservation: a controlled return to the ivory trade.

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Editorial Reviews

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.)

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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
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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780871139955
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
01/06/2009
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are saying about this

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

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