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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ivory and Rhino Horn: an Oregon (!?) Perspective

I live a long way from Africa, in the far western city of Portland, Oregon. A lifetime of interest in conservation and 12 years as a zoo keeper have kept me interested in African and Asian wildlife. I haven't made it to the great game parks of India and Nepal yet, but I visited Kenya this last March.

The myth of Africa is that it is still what the American West once was--open, unfenced, full of wild beasts roaming free. That visit in March showed me how outdated the myth is. Like the plains and mountains of eastern Oregon, northern Kenya is cattle ranches, farms, and towns. Elephants and lions roam there, elk and cougars in Oregon. The elephants and elk are fenced in or out and cursed for damaging farms. Lions and cougars are killed to protect domestic stock.

I don't want to exaggerate the commonality, but I've been finding other comparisons with Oregon.

It's conventional wisdom that Chinese money is driving wildlife poaching in southeast Asia and Africa. Kenyans told me that Chinese truck drivers keep suitcases of money in their cabs for purchasing wildlife products, and this is fueling illegal killing of elephants and rhinos.

This poaching is serious business. Much of it is now run by organized crime gangs with sophisticated weapons, night goggles, and money to buy political protection. Rhino poaching is at a 15 year high and elephant poaching continues unabated because there is a lot of money to be made.
White rhino in Kenya with her sleeping calf.

My reaction to the slaughter is anger and frustration, especially toward end consumers, the people who buy ivory objects to ornament themselves and their homes and who pay for useless rhino horn "medicines". I've remembered or discovered Oregon connections that require me to take a breath, dial back the blame, and try to understand.

People have admired ornamental objects made of ivory for millennia. My Portland grandmother collected ivory. It was legal. She bought pretty little carvings on trips to Thailand and loved them. I remember her crying when some were broken. Yesterday I saw an ad in the Oregonian for an auction that included carved ivory among its offerings.

I took the picture below in a Las Vegas casino Christmas before last.
It's two large elephant tusks intricately carved, with a model ship behind them made of bits of ivory.

The auction item and the Las Vegas offerings are almost certainly older pieces that entered the country before we outlawed their importation and their sale is legal.

So... some people in the U.S. find ivory objects attractive and are willing to pay (plenty) for them. If our government did not enforce international conservation laws, we'd have our own open market for new ivory. But we enforce those laws in part because we have enough people who see exterminating elephants for their tusks as repellent. We'd rather think of elephants alive, roaming those mythical wild spaces or at least the limited habitat we've left them.

As for rhino poaching, the goal is their horns and most of the market is for traditional Asian medicine. A week ago I visited a traditional Chinese pharmacy here in Oregon, in the remote town of John Day. Kam Wah Chung opened as a Chinese social center, labor center, general store, and clinic in 1871, serving Chinese men drawn out of starving Guangdong province by western gold strikes. The building is now a museum, "frozen in time" from the year it shut down, 1948. Click HERE to read its fascinating story.
What captured my attention was that herbalist Ing Hay provided medical care renowned throughout eastern Oregon and the adjoining states. In this intensely racist era, Doc Hay served both white and Chinese patients. Eventually blind, he diagnosed by "pulseology", reading four pulses on the wrists of patients. His treatments were herbal brews, usually described as foul tasting, and he stocked thousands of herbs and other medicinal materials that he ordered from China. Trade with China was far easier and more rapid in that period than I ever realized.
This is the barred pharmacy portion of the Kam Wah Chung building. Note the bear paw and deer leg in the middle, the many boxes of medicines behind.

Consider Ing Hay's competition. My great-uncle graduated from the University of Oregon medical school and worked in Baker City, less than 100 miles from John Day, in the 1890s and early 1900s. I have his black leather medical bag. He could set bones, deliver babies, and sew up wounds, but he had few weapons to combat bacterial infections or pneumonia or many other lethal diseases, such as the infection that killed him at age 49.
Dr. William Parker and Comeaux, about 1896.

Sulfa drugs were developed starting in 1939. Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but was not readily available until World War II, when we raced to develop and produce this new miracle drug to save injured soldiers.

No wonder "the Chinaman" did not lack for customers--Ing Hay had treatments for their ails, and his patients learned that no one else did. He died at about age 83, well respected and one of the few Chinese left in John Day.

Practices change, people adapt, old convictions fade. I have my great-uncle's watch fob with an elk's tooth, from his membership in an Elks Lodge. We no longer allow elk to be killed for their two canine teeth. He used the most modern treatments available, but would not recognize much of medicine today. Cultures are not static, especially modern ones.

Why were Americans so willing to abandon herbal and folk treatments? Why do the Chinese and other Asians maintain those traditions? Whatever the reasons, people trust traditional Chinese medicine today just as Ing Hay and his patients did in Oregon a century ago.

The question that matters to me: How to put an end to the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for knick-knacks and outmoded medicines? One path is law enforcement. Another is cultural change--curbing the demand. WildAid and Rhino Conservation address the market for wildlife products in China and other countries through public service ads. World Wildlife Fund works with practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in the United States to reduce Chinese-American demand.

Oregon hasn't seen free roaming rhinos for millions of years or elephants for thousands (yes, once upon a time both lived here.) To have a species vanish due to natural processes saddens me--I want them all, now. But that's a naturalist's sentimentality. It's quite a different matter to watch our own species exterminating the wonderful biota we inherited. That's not sentimentality, it's moral outrage. Outrage is fine as a motivating force, but it's not necessarily strategic.

Energetic people of good will are doing their best to let elephants and rhinos continue to live out their lives as they always have. I will do my best to give them a hand and I wish you would, too--Oregonians and everyone else.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting about the American-Chinese Herbalist.

Sarah K

Anonymous said...

Very interesting about the Chinese Herbalist.

SArah K

Kishor Kumar said...

The elephant ivory and rhino horns from southern Africa are shipped to Asia, where they fetch handsome sums on the black market.

Ann Littlewood said...

That is true, Kishor, no matter where the ivory and horn are from. The Asian market is a huge issue, although I hear there is a substantial (illegal) U.S. market as well.

Anonymous said...

can you posses a rino horn in oregon or caifornia

Ann Littlewood said...

Anonymous: there may be a few special circumstances where it's legal. I can't speak with any authority about this, but perhaps museum specimens or old trophies. Importing it legally sounds pretty dicey. I really struggle to understand people who think owning ivory objects or rhino horn is cool. Do they not get that the animal was killed? It's not like clipping wool off sheep! That cute little figurine for sale required a dead animal and buying it encourages other people to shoot them for the money.

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