On Thursday, November 14th, 2013, the United States crushed six tons of ivory in Denver. Now reduced to dust, the shattered pile of white gold represented well over a thousand slaughtered elephants. It was, in some ways, a historic moment and a clear step up in the country’s role to combat the illicit trade. But there’s much more work to do. Last year alone, experts say that more than 30,000 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks. British-born photographer Nick Brandt has been documenting East Africa’s disappearing grandeur for more than a decade. His trilogy of books – “On This Earth” (2005), “A Shadow Falls” (2009), “Across the Ravaged Land” (2013)—was just completed in September of this year, and the last installment is the grimmest one so far. He spoke to us the day after attending the ivory crush.
Roads & Kingdoms: What was the ivory crush like?
Nick Brandt: It was an important but sad moment, to see the tusks of so many hundreds and hundreds of elephants ground up into deliberately valueless dust, elephants whose lives were lost for naught, like all the millions of others whose lives over the decades have been brutally and needlessly extinguished for their ivory….
R&K: Is it something that happens often?
NB: It was the first ever in the US. I was invited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who gives funds to my foundation in Africa, Big Life Foundation. It was the first step in what will hopefully lead to a more actively engaged United States entering the battle to stop the out-of-control slaughter of Africa’s last elephants. In and of itself, this ivory crush will make no difference to the ivory demand. But it is an important start. The U.S. now needs to more urgently try and engage all countries to more forcefully impose the ban on illegal ivory. But the U.S. needs to do something else to make a dent in the killing: what many of us don’t realize is that after China, the U.S. is actually the second largest importer of illegal wildlife parts. Not ivory specifically, but all illegal wildlife parts. The U.S. cannot hope to ask China to do the right thing and ban ivory whilst it allows the sale of ‘legal’ ivory to continue in this country.
Elephant on bare earth, Amboseli 2011. © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery, NY
R&K: What can the U.S. do to set a good example?
NB: The U.S. needs to impose a moratorium on the sale of all ivory products in the country. The vast majority of ivory is illegal, sourced from murdered elephants. But retailers of ivory products invariably claim that their ivory is legal, when in truth, it is anything but. The loophole is so large that you could drop an entire herd of elephants through it. This moratorium should be an easy sell, but as always, there is a strong faction in the form of the deceptively benignly-named Safari Club, who will fight this to the (species’) death.
R&K: I had no idea the U.S. was such a big importer.
NB: Nor did I to be honest.
R&K: Why do you think that is? And do they import the same things as the Chinese?
NB: Because of money. Tusks and rhino horn, less so—that is heavily to China and the Far East. But there are many, many other illegal animal parts from other parts of the world.