Wild Things

Should We Destroy Our Ivory Art Out Of Guilt? Prince William Seems to Think So.

Watercolor of Princess Beatrice, on ivory laid on backing card, commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1861 and executed by artist Annie Dixon.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.

On Sunday, the U.K. paper The Independent reported that Prince William had privately stated that he wanted to see the royal collection of ivory destroyed. William, along with his father and his brother, attended the recent London Conference, where conservationists gathered to discuss the alarming increase in elephant poaching driven by the illegal ivory trade. (The Independent has taken on wildlife trafficking as a cause, aligning itself editorially with the London Conference and the anti-poaching campaign.)

The Duke of Cambridge’s comments come to us secondhand, through the primatologist Jane Goodall. William’s spokesperson refused to officially confirm or deny his comments.  

In the past year or so, several countries, including Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, Gabon, and the United States, have carried out public destructions of government-confiscated ivory. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has recently taken a new tack, asking the public to “surrender” ivory objects in their possession as “a token of support for elephants.” The organization publicly crushed surrendered ivory keepsakes in front of the U.K. Parliament last week.   

The Royal Collection Trust has a digital archive where you can see some of the 1,249 royalty-owned objects categorized as “ivory.” Medieval ivory carvers in Europe often used material from the walrus or the whale, along with imported tusks from Asian or African elephants. But the bulk of these objects come from the 18th and 19th centuries, when increased trade with Africa brought newly abundant quantities of elephant and rhino ivory to Europe and the United States.  

By the 19th century, John Frederick Walker, author of Ivory’s Ghosts, writes, the material was “the plastic of its time, used for everything from buttons to scientific instruments to billiard balls to geegaws.” Technical advances in processes used to carve the tough material allowed for mass production on a scale that was previously impossible.

The objects owned by the royal family, as you might expect, are anything but factory-produced geegaws, with some reflecting an impressive level of craftsmanship. Check out this ivory “elbow chair” from India, made between 1810 and 1840; this German casket from the mid-19th century; or this carved model elephant from India, presented to the Prince of Wales in 1875-6.

How should we regard these beautiful objects? The ivory trade of the 18th and 19th centuries killed a lot of animals, but elephant populations remained robust until the 1970s and 1980s, when increased demand began to take its toll. Even with that knowledge, it’s still upsetting think of an animal as charismatic and compelling as the elephant being killed for a single body part.

Even more disturbing, the European and American demand for ivory, as Walker writes, played a big part in the slave trade. The craving for “white gold” shifted balances of power on the continent. Many African people ended up traded for ivory, or pressed into labor shooting elephants and transporting tusks.

Do these objects’ continued existence implicate us in that history? If we cringe while touring the grand plantation homes of the American South, thinking of the misery that went into this wealth, should a beautiful ivory miniature or carved punch ladle provoke the same reaction? Or can historical awareness of the circumstances of their production, coupled with a commitment to do better in the future, do enough to absolve us for keeping them around?