Wildlife products are big business in China. And to outsiders concerned about dwindling numbers of species, the rabid desire for these products can be shocking. Running down the list of species they are eating, or otherwise consuming, to the brink of extinction, it’s easy to get the impression that China’s newly rich are utterly depraved. Shameless. Inhuman, even.
In fact, though, their appetite for wildlife products—from shark fin soup and pangolin stew to ivory trinkets—in some ways echoes our own 19th-century rise to wealth. We are the ones, for instance, who brought off the great slaughter of American bison, from 60 million animals down to about 700 in 1902. We alone are to blame for the mindless killing of billions of passenger pigeons, down to the death of Martha, the sole surviving female, in 1914. But those sad stories are already well known. I’m going to tell a hometown story instead, one that resonates with what China is doing to elephants in Africa today.
For many years, I lived in a Connecticut River Valley community that rose up entirely on the strength of the ivory trade. The rival companies at the heart of Deep River and neighboring Ivoryton, Conn., were makers of piano keyboards covered with ivory, and they dominated the ivory market in the Western Hemisphere. The river landing just below my house was an unloading point for ivory tusks. And at the beginning of the 20th century, the factory at the other end of my street was cutting the ivory of a thousand elephants a year.
When I lived there in the 1980s and '90s, people could still remember fertilizing their tomatoes with ivory sawdust. The local pond below the mill used to turn yellow with it, a local elder told me, and when he and a friend came home from swimming there as boys, “we looked like the Gold Dust Twins. How my mother would holler.”
For American buyers then, as for Chinese consumers now, ivory was all about status. In the prosperous decades after the Civil War, the piano was the essential “badge of gentility,” as one social observer put it, “being the only thing that distinguishes ‘Decent People’ from the lower and less distinguished…‘middling kind of folks.’ ”
At the height of the public craze for the piano, from about 1860 to 1930, demand from Pratt, Read & Company in Deep River and Comstock, Cheney & Company in Ivoryton helped determine demand for ivory in Zanzibar, the major trading center, and even the price paid for tusks in the East African bush, where the elephants were being killed. Then, about 50,000 elephants died each year to supply the ivory trade. At the risk of overstating the moral complications of what seemed like an innocent pastime, they died so girls in the rising middle class could display their musical talent and families could gather around the piano to sing.
It’s hard for us now to grasp the extraordinary intimacy with elephant tusks that was once commonplace in the two towns. These days, scientists tracking the illegal ivory trade can determine the origin of a tusk by studying its isotopes, persistent biochemical traces of what the elephant ate, and where it lived. But the old ivory cutters had something like that knowledge in their hands. They could tell Congo ivory from Sudanese, Mozambique, Senegalese, or Abyssian ivory, Egyptian soft from Egyptian hard, and Zanzibar prime from Zanzibar cutch.
They knew the ivory not just by how it responded to their saws but by how it felt beneath their fingertips. "To observe a man at work with ivory," a reporter who visited the Pratt, Read cutting rooms once wrote, was "to watch a man in love. As it is sorted, sliced, cut, and matched, each workman actually fondles and caresses it." No doubt the ivory carvers of modern Hong Kong or Bangkok feel the same way.
There is, of course, a big difference between the ivory market then and now. The idea of eliminating elephants from Africa would have seemed absurd back then, like suggesting we could remove all the fish from the sea. Moreover, today we have television and the Internet to bring the slaughter of elephants into our homes and make it real. Even with the current censorship in China, only willful ignorance could keep the people who still buy ivory trinkets from knowing the bloody cost of their status symbols.
And yet the Connecticut River Valley’s 19th-century ivory merchants also understood the damage they were doing. Local men who represented the ivory companies in Zanzibar knew that elephants were disappearing from vast areas of East Africa. As the years passed, the Arab-run ivory-trading caravans, armed by Yankee merchants, were obliged to travel deeper into the continent and be away for longer.
One especially painful irony is that George Read, the founder of Deep River and its ivory company, was an anti-slavery activist even in the 1830s. His home was a station on the Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, the caravans that brought the tusks down to the East African coast also brought slaves to carry the tusks, and those slaves were then sold into the trade. Read, who died in 1859, must at some point surely have realized his own connection to the slave trade, and yet he did nothing to stop it.
So how does all this history matter to the present challenge of getting people in China to stop buying ivory? What ultimately killed the business in Connecticut wasn't any concern about the elephants (or the slaves). Instead, it required a change of taste among consumers: The phonograph arrived, and playing the piano became old hat. By the 1950s, the ivory trade in the Connecticut River Valley was dead.
The moral is that we shouldn’t be too quick to call Chinese ivory buyers inhuman or depraved. They are a lot like we once were. At the same time, our own bad behavior then should not become the means of justifying China’s continued bad behavior today. We need to be quick and clear about that, because at the current rate of killing, elephants, rhinos, tigers, and many other species could soon completely vanish from the wild.
But a change in taste, like the one that killed the Connecticut ivory trade, is still eminently possible. Social pressure and the need to save face are the forces most likely to make it happen. In my lifetime, I have seen that kind of pressure make fur unfashionable and more than halve the rate of cigarette smoking among American adults.
So here’s the lesson for China: The ivory trade of the 19th century is now a permanent mark of shame for the Connecticut River Valley. It will be a far greater disgrace, and an everlasting one, if China now causes the extinction of the largest and most beloved land mammal on Earth. Stepping up and saving the elephants, on the other hand, will bring China the thing great nations crave most, which is the admiration of the world.
The hunger for status, which is now killing the elephants, could thus instead become its salvation.