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


Long before gold and gemstones held allure, humans were drawn to the “jewels of the elephant” – its great tusks. Ivory is a supreme organic treasure, prized throughout the world for its pale, lustrous beauty and ability to be finely carved. In Ivory’s Ghosts, John Frederick Walker layers rich history and firsthand reportage to tell the fascinating and sometimes savage story of ivory’s enormous impact on both human history and that of its most important source: the majestic ...

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Long before gold and gemstones held allure, humans were drawn to the “jewels of the elephant” – its great tusks. Ivory is a supreme organic treasure, prized throughout the world for its pale, lustrous beauty and ability to be finely carved. In Ivory’s Ghosts, John Frederick Walker layers rich history and firsthand reportage to tell the fascinating and sometimes savage story of ivory’s enormous impact on both human history and that of its most important source: the majestic African elephant.

Coveted since prehistory, ivory was the master carver’s medium in cultures from ancient Egypt to the industrializing United States. It was used for sacred amulets, classical nudes, intricate Baroque sculptures, Japanese netsuke, piano keys, and billiard balls. By the nineteenth century ivory had become the plastic of its age, and a global addiction drove the exploration and exploitation of Africa at immense human and animal cost. Insatiable demand led to the wholesale slaughter of elephants. By the 1980s, organized poaching reached record levels in East Africa, provoking an international outcry that led to an ivory trade ban still in effect today.

Yet the ban has failed to stop poaching – or end the bitter, emotional debate over what to do with the legitimate and growing stockpiles of ivory from elephants that die of natural causes. In Ivory’s Ghosts, John Frederick Walker builds a wrenching – and utterly compelling – argument that it is time to ask whether a controlled return to the ivory trade could help, rather than hurt, elephants.

A richly detailed account of the troubled relationship between material desire and environmental welfare, Ivory’s Ghosts is a deeply felt examination of both ivory’s past and its uncertain future – and the future of elephants themselves.

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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.
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: 9781423378006
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 1/6/2009
  • Format: MP3 on CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 1
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

John Frederick Walker is the author of the highly praised A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Wildlife Conservation, and many 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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