The elephant in the room trumpets your values
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.
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