Elephant in the room

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Police officials display tusks weighing 38 kg, which were seized from Sakleshapura in Karnataka, a 2008 picture. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Elephant tusks, ivory figurines and rhinoceros horns being burnt at the Nairobi National Park on April 30. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta lit the world’s biggest ivory bonfire after demanding a total ban on trade in tusks and horns to end “murderous” trafficking and prevent the extinction of elephants in the wild. Photo: FREDRIK LERNERYD/AFP

Karnataka is undecided on burning the 22 tonnes of elephant tusks in its possession, though the message from around the world is to destroy ivory stockpiles.

A NUMBER of countries, primarily Kenya, with ivory worth around $104 million, heeded the global call to destroy ivory stockpiles in their possession to send a loud and clear message that ivory is worthless unless it is on an elephant. But in India there is ambivalence and indecision over destroying the ivory. Sitting on ivory stocks—which by conservative estimates weigh 22 tonnes, from tusks as small as 20 centimetres to one measuring a metre and a half and weighing 48 kilograms—at its massive cast iron vaults in the century-old “sandalwood kote” (fort) in the heart of Mysuru, the Karnataka government prefers a wait-and-watch approach on how, when, or whether at all, to destroy its ivory stockpile. Admittedly, of the 2,100-odd tusks in the approximately 20 x 10 x 7 foot vaults, a little more than 1,850 form part of the evidence in forest offence cases and are to be produced in court when needed. Wildlife experts estimate that the street price of a kilogram of ivory is around $1,000. Karnataka has India’s largest population of elephants. Kerala and Assam, the other States with sizable elephant populations, have also been undecided on destroying ivory stockpiles.

B.J. Hosmath, Karnataka’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, said: “It is a long-pending issue. The State government will have to take a decision on whether to destroy the stockpiles in our safe custody. No State in India has taken any decision as yet. And it cannot be taken in a hurry since there are so many issues to be thought of before a decision is taken. Ivory in this part of the world has its own historical significance. It is a very complex, difficult issue. And even if we decided to destroy our ivory stockpiles, we would need a high temperature furnace facility which we do not have. But the number of tusks we are getting has also dwindled. And there is no proof that destroying supply leads to a decline in demand.”

The practice of incinerating ivory goes back to July 1989 when President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya set fire to a pile of 12 tonnes of elephant tusks and nudged a change in global policy on ivory exports. Post the much-publicised “pyre of ivory”, international trading in ivory was banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Over the past decades ivory from the African elephant under CITES supervision has been auctioned by some southern African nations to countries like Japan.

Burning ivory is easier said than done. Results quoted by National Geographic Online of an experiment conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in 2008 showed that burning ivory at 1,000 C led to it losing just 7 gram per minute. In other words, it would take a week to destroy an average male elephant’s tusk.

Hosmath said that in Karnataka “poaching of elephants has more or less been curtailed” and most, if not all, tusks obtained were from domesticated elephants at the Forest Department’s camps or those that died naturally in the wild or those that got killed by electric fences. According to Forest Department figures, of the 47 male elephants (including six male calves) that died in 2015-16 in the State, 13 (all adults) died unnaturally—six were electrocuted and seven died of gunshot wounds, of which three were clear cases of poaching. Of the 16 male elephants that died between April and August this year, three were electrocuted and one died of gunshot wounds.

Tusks for the Army

All the tusks that belong to the Karnataka Forest Department are not stashed away in the high-security iron vaults. The government’s stand thus far has been to accede to requests from the Army to hand over tusks to it for display, especially at its regimental officers’ messes, given the tradition, honour and valour that elephant tusks signify to Army personnel and regiments. As many as 140 pairs of tusks have been handed over to the Army, the latest being a pair given in the last week of August.

Forest officials told Frontline that these tusks were neither sold nor gifted to the Army but “distributed” under a government order. An Army unit makes a request for tusks to the Karnataka Additional Chief Secretary (Forest and Ecology), who in turn writes to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. He directs the officials concerned to hand over the tusks to the Army. Large tusks are generally preferred for display. The Army unit can polish the tusks or add silver/gold embellishments to them but cannot alter them in any way. The Forest Department will have to be informed about the coordinates of where the tusks are displayed. The department can take the tusks back at any time.

According to forest officials, 240 tusks, free from any forest offence cases/criminal cases/encumbrances, are in the vaults. With most of these being single unmatched tusks, they have no takers. “Perfectly matched tusks are what the Army is looking for. It has become difficult to find identically matched pairs from the remaining tusks that are with us,” said an official.

For centuries, ivory poaching and the avarice for tusks have been the main reasons why elephants have been hunted and killed. Many of the tusks thus obtained even today make their way underground to Asian countries, especially Japan and more recently to China. Ivory has been traditionally used as trophies for display, as piano keys, identification chops, knife and gun handles, pen blanks, billiard cues, guitar parts, combs, statuettes and other trinkets, and in billiards balls and eyeglass frames. The stand of the Karnataka government not to immediately destroy its ivory stockpile is akin to playing into the hands of the ivory trade by giving more importance to the material value of ivory than the existence and moral value of the life of a magnificent animal, say conservationists and ecologists.

M.D. Madhusudan, ecologist, conservationist and elephant expert, said: “The Wildlife Act, 1980, has signalled enough by making ivory illegal. So the position is not as mysterious as governments would like us to think. The government should not view ivory in narrow commercial terms but in moral cost. Governments should do everything to signal that trading in ivory is illegal. By allowing tusks to be displayed, what are we trying to signal? Why do we need to maintain a stockpile?”

Prof. Raman Sukumar, the ecologist who has done yeomen work on the ecology of the Asian elephant and on human-animal conflicts, said: “With there being no chance of the ban on Asian ivory being lifted in the near future it would be better to destroy the stockpiles that States like Karnataka and Kerala are holding. It will also avoid the burden of looking after the stockpiles. There has been a lot of talk about destroying the ivory stockpiles but nothing has happened. Of course, it is also an emotional issue. Both in Karnataka and Kerala carvings in ivory were an expression of art. And until the mid 1980s ivory was legally auctioned by the States to artisans.”

Sukumar is, however, categorical that adequate samples of ivory for research purposes—be it chemical, genetic or analytical—be preserved: “Tusks tell a tale. We can get DNA from tusks. Tusks are also a great indicator for us to reconstruct the life of an elephant, source the population from where it came, where it migrated from, its diet, its environmental history…. The tusks’ growth rings also give us the age of the animal.”

Madhusudan, who is also a member of the Karnataka Elephant Task Force set up in 2012 by the Karnataka High Court and has also worked towards understanding and reducing human-elephant conflicts around the Bandipur National Park, points out that keeping stockpiles runs the risk of pilferage, whatever the levels of security and annual stocktaking.

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