The interview

An ancient lust and its echoes

With John Frederick Walker

By Anna Mundow
February 8, 2009
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Between 1699 and 1725, at least 2,500 tons of ivory - over a quarter of a million elephant tusks - were shipped out of West Africa by Dutch and English traders. Between 1850 and 1910, Britain imported approximately 500 tons of ivory. Today, ivory poaching thrives while government-held stocks of ivory multiply. In his lively and erudite new book, "Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants" (Atlantic Monthly, $25), John Frederick Walker traces our atrocious yet enduring connection to this seductive material. Walker is also the author of "A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola." He spoke from his home in Connecticut.

Q. You describe ivory artifacts that were carved 35,000 years ago. Did they inspire this book in any way?

A. The germ of the idea for the book was the disturbing fact that despite a nearly 20-year-old ivory trade ban, elephants were still being poached for their tusks. I wanted to know what was it about ivory that drove people to do this. But in my research I was amazed to find that from the very beginning, ivory was something that awakened material desire. The first human figurines - dating from prehistory, during the period of great cave paintings - were carved from ivory. Many are small, with rounded forms that invite touch. You imagine them being held as amulets, close to the flesh. Later ivory became the plastic of its day. One can even argue that the search for a synthetic substitute for ivory billiard balls was a driving force in the development of plastics. Certainly the lust for ivory drove the exploration and exploitation of Africa and continues to have a deeply troubling impact on elephants, the species that has always been its greatest source.

Q. And New England was central to the ivory trade?

A. Yes, surprising as that sounds. In 1910 the US manufacture of pianos surpassed that of Germany - 350,000 a year. That industry alone required an enormous amount of ivory for piano key veneers, and the factories in Deep River and Ivoryton, Conn., became the world's largest producers of ivory goods. Before World War I, much of the ivory the US imported was bought by a single man, Boston-born Ernst D. Moore, who was based in Zanzibar. His son, Richard Moore, kindly allowed me to quote from his father's diaries.

Q. How did you come across them?

A. I was poking around in Ivoryton and heard that Moore had kept diaries of his time in Africa. I had read his 1931 book, "Ivory: Scourge of Africa," and his articles, but I knew immediately that his diaries could have something more - personal details that would make the narrative come alive. They did. His insights into the ivory trade were eye-opening. I was delighted by the fact that he almost never missed an entry, and grateful that he wrote in a wonderfully clear hand.

Q. Did New England manufacturers know that ivory was often transported by slaves?

A. They had to know. They were directly involved in the trade from the 1830s on. I think they told themselves "This is Africa, the Dark Continent. This is how things are done there." But they didn't allow whatever high-flown missionary hopes they might have held for Africa's future to interfere with their business.

Q. Why did traders use people, not animals, to carry tusks from the interior?

A. Horses or cattle couldn't be used effectively because the disease-carrying tsetse fly was so widespread. Tusks had to be carried on human shoulders. Historians are careful to point out that slaves weren't typically used; porterage required strong, healthy individuals. In some cases, slaves might be hired out as porters. But traders who dealt both in ivory and human chattel didn't hesitate to use slave caravans to transport ivory, selling the survivors and the ivory burdens they bore when they reached the coasts.

Q. What do you want readers to understand about elephant conservation?

A. That it needs rethinking. And to recognize that there are difficult choices ahead, and the answers won't be able to be summed up in bumper-sticker-sized slogans. For example, although elephants are being poached in many regions, especially those ravaged by war, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, herds aren't being persecuted all over the continent. In fact, in southern African countries like Botswana and South Africa there are actually too many elephants for the available habitat. And ivory isn't going away. As long as there are elephants there will be ivory. You don't have to kill them to get their ivory; they leave it when they die, and it continues to be stockpiled in parks and wildlife departments. A tightly regulated, limited ivory trade might be one way to allow those African countries that effectively protect and manage their elephant populations to raise funds for their continuing conservation efforts. In any case, we have to find a future for elephants that is workable, otherwise we'll just have another 20 years of poaching and hand-wringing.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

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