Cultural Values of Elephants and Ivory
As I continue to examine connections between Africa and Asia as well as boundaries between humanity and animality in southeastern Cameroon, my research attention is also directed towards relations between people and elephants.
Research undertaken by ecologists throughout the Congo River basin has demonstrated that populations of elephants have declined by over 70% in just the past decade (Maisels et al., 2013). Setting this astonishing decline alongside economic data of surging engagement by Asian companies in African nations over the same decade, it is evident that elephant populations are under mounting pressure in direct relation to interest in African natural resources by surging Asian markets for ivory.
While patterns of elephant hunting are historically very deep, culturally variable, and have been shaped by engagement of various actors within complex trading networks and markets over the past thousand years, the current acceleration of hunting for ivory raises fears of the decimation of African elephant populations throughout the continent.
44 confiscated tusks in Moloundou, near the Lobéké National Park, southeastern Cameroon.
14 March 2014
I speak an unusual set of languages—African languages from two regions of the Congo River basin as well as Mandarin Chinese—that enables me to carry out research at both ends of contemporary ivory networks: with elephant hunters in central African forests and with ivory consumers in East and Southeast Asia. As a result, when I am in the Congo River basin doing field work on people and non-human primates, I also explore cultural, ecological, and political boundaries between people and elephants. I am interested in the many social relations between elephants and people, as well as changing methods of hunting, processes of distribution of meat, and markets for ivory and other elephant products. When I return to Southeast Asia every summer with my family, I look at contemporary markets of ivory in Asian contexts.
For example, In the summer of 2013 I conducted preliminary research on Chinese consumers of ivory in Thailand, examining the current influx of African ivory in markets in Bangkok and Chiang Mai where African ivory is being laundered into ivory markets ostensibly supplied by Thai elephants.
The policy application of my research is to understand cultural values of elephants on the one hand and ivory on the other, with the goal of shifting consumer preferences for ivory and supporting economic interventions in forest communities to improve their economic conditions, while complementing ongoing conservation projects in the Congo River basin.
Ivory carving of African woman, for sale at luxury ivory auction.
Bangkok, Thailand. August, 2013.