I’m all for symbolic actions to show resolve in the face of tragic environmental issues, but there’s good symbolism and there’s pointless symbolism. In the case of Prince William’s desire “to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed"—expressed in private to Jane Goodall, but now reported in The Guardian, The Dodo, and elsewhere—we have an example of pointless symbolism.
Recently, we’ve seen a number of high-profile burnings of whole elephant tusks by governments, the tusks themselves either having been seized from poachers or from back stockpiles. There have also been huge ivory crushes in several countries. The destruction both takes ivory off the lucrative black market, as well as attempting to send the message that governments are serious about stopping poaching. Such efforts may well elevate the public awareness of the dire state of the African elephant, being driven rapidly to extinction by the desire for its tusks in the black market of Southeast and East Asia. It’s a nice photograph, a nice story, and decent symbolism.
But in the case of Buckingham Palace’s collection of ivory, we’re not talking about ivory tusks or trinkets, we’re talking about, to use The Guardian’s description, “about 1,200 artifacts dating back hundreds of years.” In other words, over a millennium of art history.
Elephant poaching is an abomination, full stop. Governments around the world, both in the countries where poaching occurs and in the black markets where the ivory is worked into finished products, are not doing enough to stop the slaughter; there can be no doubt about that. It will be a dark stain on the history of human civilization if we cannot collectively rally to stop this trade.
However, destroying the legacy of human creativity embodied in the Buckingham Palace collection serves no purpose. Doing so would not, as conservationist Paula Kahumbu says, “be a demonstration of them putting their money where their mouth is,” nor would it, I imagine, “help Britons hand in their ivory, illegal or legal.”
It’s one thing, as Prince Charles has apparently done, to remove items in the collection of his homes from public view. Doing so may help, in some small way, distance the linking of ivory objects with wealth, power, and prestige in the minds of potential buyers of either new or antique works in ivory. If Buckingham Palace wishes to do that, it would be a far more sophisticated action than that of destroying outright the objectionable objets d’art.
In a way, the destruction of existing antique ivory works of art—those created in a time when African elephants were not on the brink of extinction—is some weird form of knee-jerk iconoclasm. It’s as if we are now so horrified by the state of affairs we’ve created vis-a-vis elephants that to show our disgust with our ineptitude at preventing poaching we will attempt to erase the fact that we ever thought using ivory was acceptable.
Should we also destroy objects created in times of slavery? The near entirety of most museums' Roman collections would have to go, as well as the artistic and cultural legacy of a great many societies. Should we destroy artifacts from the period of westward expansion in the United States associated with the de facto attempted genocide of Native Americans? Should we destroy art objects created in colonized nations by at times brutalized people? Will we in the coming decades all destroy old smartphones and gadgets containing conflict minerals to show our disgust with economic exploitation and environmental degradation?
We’re obviously not going to do any of those things. Nor should we go around in some purge of ivory antiques, turning in family heirlooms and cultural relics. The visual legacy of practices we now find objectionable is something worth preserving, even when we find it disturbing.
Good on Prince William for carrying on his father’s legacy on issues of conservation by helping with campaigns to end poaching of both elephants and rhinos. Take the royal family’s ivory out of public view. Box it up for a time if you must. In a few decades, when either the African elephant will have been driven extinction by our inaction today, or when we will have stopped the illegal ivory trade, take the ivory out of its boxes for re-display. It will then either be a grim reminder of our failure or an emblem of our success.