Once I met a man who possessed an object of such great value that it was, in a monetary sense, worthless to him.

His name was Damanius Bao Dasion. He lived in a small fishing village east of Flores, on the Savu Sea.

On a kind of altar in his modest living room he kept what I guessed to be a small Portuguese cannon, some silver objects and the tusk of an African elephant.

The tusk was so old it was dulled in places to a soft golden colour. Damanius was a small man but even so, as you can see from the photo, taken by my colleague Ardiles Rante, the tusk was huge.

In the 10 or so days I spent in this village I did not ever see one policeman but Damanius did not spend his days worrying himself that the tusk would be stolen.

With the tusk came a curse: were anyone, be it a member of his own family, an acquaintance or a stranger, to carry the tusk outside his front door, that person and their whole extended family would die immediately.

Damanius, a village leader, had no idea how the tusk had come into his family’s possession but it was centuries ago.

It seems probable that it filtered down from Arab traders. One suggestion was that it might have been payment to Damanius’s ancestors from a grateful ruler for their clan joining a fighting force.

A few years ago, a Singaporean couple offered Damanius $1 billion rupiah for the tusk, or about $115,000. Huge money, but he did not need to pause to consider his answer.

It was difficult to ascertain what personal value the tusk held for him. I guessed it was about prestige, maybe some kind of animistic power and, perhaps most importantly, a direct connection to his ancestors.

I was unsure whether Damanius really believed the curse or used it as an illusory alarm system. Either way, it was not for sale.

I thought of Damanius’s complete incorruptibility this week when the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, announced that two men had pleaded guilty to selling and commercializing ivory from their Manhattan jewelry stores.

Mukesh Gupta, who runs Raja Jewels on 45th St, and Johnson Jung-Chien Lu, of the New York Jewelry Mart Corp on 46th St, together forfeited $2m worth of ivory, weighing around one tonne.

They were also required to pay a total of $55,000 in fines, which will be donated to the Wildlife Conservation Society to counter elephant poaching and the ivory trade. 

The men avoided prison but the DA’s office made a big thing about it, with Vance, who is an elected official in a Democrat heartland, appearing in a media conference that worked for him on every level: it was environmental; it was caring; and the grievance to elephants was outrageous. 

Best of all, the real source of the problem, the killing fields of Africa, was a long, long way from Manhattan. It could never bite him back.

It was a big-deal media event. Vance, in the language of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was feeding the chooks. 

Questions on the trafficking chain, such as how the ivory got to America, were not answered. Trafficking ivory was a federal matter. New York only could only prosecute the illegal sale of ivory.

“Poachers should not have a market in Manhattan,” Vance said. “It is unacceptable that tusks from elephants wind up being sold as mass-produced jewelry and unremarkable decorative items in this city.

“Despite efforts to protect populations of endangered and threatened species, poachers are pushing them to the brink of extinction.”

Magnificent work by the authorities, except for one problem: Gupta and Lu were not shy about selling their ivory. They had it on open display in their very unconcealed shops, just off Times Square. They had done for years.

This did not slow the media event down. The authorities said when they first “uncovered” Lu selling ivory, it instigated a “year-long” investigation. This “led them” to Gupta’s store.

In other words, they asked Lu a question or two, he coughed up immediately and they walked straight around the corner, a distance of approximately 400m, to question Gupta, who was Lu’s supplier.

But they would not be denied their triumph and various environmental law agencies gathered to congratulate each other on their brilliant investigative work uncovering what every jewel-shop visiting New York tourist already accepted as a casual, commonplace truth.

But the Manhattan authorities said they were “securing a future for elephants”.

The two men were prosecuted under New York’s Environmental Conservation Law, which makes it illegal to sell, or possess with intent to sell things made of endangered or threatened species without a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Even then, permit holders may only sell ivory that is antique or pre-dates the species being listed under the US Endangered Species Act.

The DA’s office said the Asian Elephant became listed as endangered under American law in 1976. The African Elephant was listed as threatened in 1978.

Figures from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization, stated that in 2011 more than 24 tonnes of ivory was seized, the worst year since the 1989 ivory ban.

The demand for ivory came mostly China and Japan, who need it to give that nice cracking sound on their billiard balls, or for piano keys, beads, bracelets, earrings, animal carvings, and for knife and pistol grips.

Funnily enough, one of the favourite things people like to buy is miniature craved tusks or tiny ivory elephants.

Not so funny, between 2002 and 2011, across Africa, 8,571 elephants were illegally killed for their tusks.

Of course, DA Vance was right that jewelry shops such as Gupta’s and Lu’s, who were in cahoots, encourage poachers to slaughter elephants.

But the US market is small and Vance is starting to think about his 2013 campaign. This looks like the first shot. Blood diamonds next.

The DA’s office said the seized ivory is likely to be used for educational and investigatory training purposes.

I don’t know what Damanius, keeper of the great tusk, would say about all this. I dare say he wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in the greed or the politics. He and his treasure are above all that.


Most commented


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    • acotrel says:

      09:05am | 15/07/12

      So much for the idea that the true value of something is only what you can get for it, when you sell it ?  It always amuses me that in my own obsession - historic motor racing, you can buy repicas of vehicles which were raced years ago.  Many are much better technically than the original. In historic motorcycle racing, a Molnar or Walmsley replica Norton Manx 500 costs about $90,000 and the genuine item can be bought for $50,000.  The question is would you really want an excellent copy of the Mona Lisa even if the paint was better ?

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      09:05am | 15/07/12

      Humans have greatly perturbed many ecosystem. It is probably not understood at all by the public that the Antarctic Ocean has suffered one of the greatest disturbances. The Blue whales at a population of 230,000 about 140 years ago was consuming about 100 million tons of krill a year. Now the Blue whales population is about 2,500.

      It is a big scientific challenge to develop policies to manage highly perturbed ecosystem.

      This article is informative and useful to help prevent the extinction of elephants in many countries in Africa.

      However it is not well known that there was an overpopulation of elephants in the famous Kruger Park in South Africa. This Park continues to cull each year the elephants in the Kruger Park to prevent the elephants from destroying the Park, see http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/people/faculty/pimm/publications/pimmreprints/142_Whyte_et_al_AnimCons_1998.pdf

    • Leo says:

      10:36am | 15/07/12

      Its only in the last half century that the killing of animals for ornamental purposes has become abhorrent. The thought of all those elephants being killed so people could “tickle the ivories” is truly sad.

      Have we as a species all of a sudden grown some morals or is it better education that has powered the rapid change in our awareness?  Our ancestors did not consider themselves savages, yet 100 years ago it was considered a noble adventure for an English aristocrat to travel to India to kill tigers. And 200 years ago in America it was legal to own a slave. Educated people have been around for thousands of years, so why did they do so many things we all clearly see as wrong?

      Consider the brutality of the slaughter of that woman in Afghanistan that was reported last week. We are all horrified, but to the people who executed her, its a cultural issue and she had it coming. We all know its been happening there for hundreds of years, but because we are shown pictures of one incident, we demand those responsible be hunted down. What about all the others that happened last month or last year, are we going to demand they get hunted down too?  And will locking the guilty man from this incident away change the attitude of the man who will commit a similar act next week or next month ?

      As a species the world is still full of humans at different levels of moral awareness. Is it not arrogant for us to condemn those we feel are less sophisticated or less moral than we perceive ourselves to be. Have we really achieved a state of moral nirvana or will our grandchildren find fault with things we perceive today as normal and natural, just as we now do of our tiger hunting forebears. Will the keeping of goldfish one day be considered a savage act of an ignorant people?

      We have come a long way but “are we there yet ?”

    • Chris says:

      01:38pm | 15/07/12

      If trading in ivory is wrong today, so it was centuries ago, regardless of the reason for the trade. In accepting the tusk of an elephant, Damanius’s ancestors were complicit in the killing of that elephant. By keeping the tusk, Damanius is also complicit.

    • Satanus says:

      07:56pm | 15/07/12

      If that is really how you feel Chris, then it is people like you that are whats wrong with this world. If that is the moral code you live by then you had better sell all of your worldly possessions & disappear as I daresay you are just as complicit in the destruction of Mother earth as poor old Damanius by simply existing after being spat out by your own ancestors….

    • Leningen says:

      11:35pm | 15/07/12

      Bizarre. If Ivory trading is wrong today, it’s wrong today. Situations change and rules do too. And what do you know, different rules apply in different places! It’s wrong to shoot the lady over the back fence for getting it on with the postie if you live in Mosman. Perfectly good to kill the adulterous bitch in Afghanistan. Before the fantastic religion of Islam took over it was probably wrong, but now it is kosher - so to speak.
      Damanius’s ancestors were great blokes. Even if they killed and ate the arab traders, they were great blokes because now he has the tusk and everything is okay providing he doesn’t sell it to Gupta to make trinkets. Because that is wrong, now.
      People who believe that their ideas of good and evil apply equally well in all situations and milieux should consider themselves lucky that they are wrong.

    • M says:

      08:29am | 16/07/12

      Why don’t we simply jail him for his inherritance then, Chris?

    • Borderer says:

      09:15am | 16/07/12

      I agree with M, Chris is a twit. By retaining the tusk he preserves a link to the past, he isn’t involved in ivory trading if he isn’t trading it.
      Perhaps Chris should talk to the people at the British museum about various objects they have, where they come from and how they must be complicit in centuries of war, murder, destruction, pillaging etc. They will probably just have security remove you rather than have you arrested. As I said before, twit….

    • M says:

      09:45am | 16/07/12

      I’m coming to like the term “wanker” more and more. It can be said in polite company, makes it past the mods, and imparts a stinging insult without discriminating against minority groups. It’s the PC insult of the PC age.


      See? It just rolls off the tongue.

    • Roger Crosthwaite says:

      10:53pm | 18/07/12

      “Will the keeping of goldfish one day be considered a savage act of an ignorant people?” Glub, glub, Paully. Mine have grown lungs and are coming to get me. I don’t know WHAT I’ll do! Get ya hand off it.


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