One night early this summer after dinner in a new Edgartown restaurant, my girlfriends and I wandered into a store that’s been a fixture on Main street for years. Right at the entrance we spotted a large glass case filled with white bracelets and necklaces. Jokingly I asked the two women behind the counter, “This isn’t ivory, is it?” Their response floored me. “Oh, yes! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s over one hundred years old!”
Since every single piece of ivory represents a dead elephant, I can’t see any beauty in these grisly symbols of greed, and was frankly astonished to see this jewelry for sale on Martha’s Vineyard.
The saleswomen had clearly been coached to claim that this ivory was “one hundred years old” because that distinction makes it legal to sell, however unethical it may be. But honestly, the chances that the jewelry in question was over a hundred years old, in my opinion, are slim to none.
This hundred-year loophole encourages fraud and is just one of many problems with the current ivory trade regulations. New ivory is made to look old. Provenance papers are forged. But to me, all that is beside the point. If you buy or sell ivory, whether it’s old or new, you’re encouraging illegal wildlife trafficking, the massacre of a magnificent species, and the routine murder of the brave African rangers who risk their lives every day to protect elephants, rhinos and other wildlife.
Last week, a devastating report about the elephant poaching crisis made national headlines. The murder of these noble creatures for their ivory tusks is the reason the species is racing towards extinction. In the last seven years, from 2007 to 2014, Savanna elephant populations declined by 30 per cent due to poaching; that’s a loss of 144,000 elephants murdered for their tusks.
The United States is the world’s second-largest consumer of illegally poached ivory, and Massachusetts is the seventh largest market in the U.S. These shameful statistics must compel us to change our business practices or risk being complicit in the destruction of a species.
The Massachusetts state house is currently considering a statewide ban on selling ivory. As Tom Lang, co-owner of Alexander Westerhoff Antiques in Essex, testified in a public hearing last year: “The illicit trade is actually riding on the back of the legal trade, meaning the antique ivory. The newer ivory is being stained and carved in a period-looking style.”
Thanks to President Obama, as of July 6 store owners are now required to present documentation to prove the ivory’s age. That may be a step in the right direction, but it’s hardly foolproof. It’s high time we stopped turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room — there should be no room in Edgartown’s shops for these barbaric mementos. Let’s make the moral and ethical choice to be a tourist town where tragic fragments of dead elephants are no longer sold as “beautiful” souvenirs of a lovely holiday on Martha’s Vineyard.
Laurie David is a year-round resident of Chilmark and is currently working on a new documentary about the wildlife trafficking crises called The Last Animals.