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  • Sam Darling

Elegiac elephant

One of the facets of my travel-loving family is that they went into places back when the only travelers to an area went there as latter-day colonialists. Long before nature tourism, the only way to live in certain parts of the world was to be part of the (white) colonialist power at the top of the social pyramid. These were different times. Far from getting called out for “cultural appropriation” people like my grandmother would have been considered daring and inclusive for wearing local clothes or eating local foods.


[Helene & Roger Baronnie wearing sunglasses, Philippines, 1978.]

With her keen artistic eye, my grandmother also spent a lot of time painting the local scenes and collecting local objects.



A watercolor she did in the Philippines and a typical photo of her apartment. These are all paintings she did of people she met in real life during her travels: Navajo people, a bullfighter in Spain, a naked woman in Hawai’i, two paintings of her mother-in-law, one of her husband, and a view of her beach in Hampton Bays, New York. You’ll note all the little tchotchke as well. On the top part of the bookshelves are intricately carved ivory figurines. We have quite a few of those. Many of them were collected during their time in Côte d’Ivoire.

I’ve had this on my mind because I have a small ivory bracelet from my childhood sitting on my desk. It’s one of the many exotic gifts I received when my grandparents were traveling the world.

2013-11-19 10.13.31

[The black rectangle is a Chinese clay caligraphy inkwell with a dragon figurine. The child’s ivory bracelet fits on it nicely and I have my stepfather’s knife on top. Nearby, a photo of my eldest child when she was a troll doll baby.]

To the touch, ivory can feel like Bakelite, but if you run it over your teeth, it feels like a tooth. You know when you’re having that teenage make out session and your teeth clink together gracelessly? Like that.

The thing is, I adore animals. I’m crazy about them. One of my favorite books was When Elephants Weep: the emotional lives of animals. I have so much empathy for animals I probably care about them more than humans.

I believe attitudes about conservation have changed. On the one hand, we recently lost the black rhino to extinction due to poaching, but on the other hand most people feel ashamed about it in a way they would not have even a century ago.

So I’ve wondered what people do about antique ivory. I don’t want to do anything that would promote the poaching of elephants, so I don’t want to sell these family objects, but I also feel pretty weird having bits of elephant bone on my desk. But I also like it? Because it’s a link to my family and exotic places.

The first crush of seized ivory to occur on US soil happened in Denver, Colorado just last week.

Curious, I asked a friend of mine in conservation work about this event and she wrote,

The ivory they crushed was all seized as contraband at various ports of entry from I think about 1988 to present, so it’s all illegal product. They’re crushing it as a high profile message to other countries with ivory contraband stock that they should do the same. It’s about sending a clear message against poaching and the crisis that’s happening. It’s the start of a 3-year plan between the Clinton Foundation & the Obama admnistration to crack down and get the situation under the control.

There’s a law that conservationists are pushing for right now in the US that puts a moratorium on ALL ivory though, whether it’s antique or illegal. The reason is b/c certain ivory is still legal and it’s an easy loophole for traffickers to get through – they just claim that their ivory is ‘legal/old’ ivory even though it was just ripped from an ele one week ago. This ties right into that current legislation that IFAW & WWF are trying to get through Congress.”

I love the way she always refers to elephants as “ele”. I like to think that things have changed. Still though, there are certain people, like Melissa Bachman, who want to act like they have dominion over animals. She had the healthiest male leader of a lion pride brought to her so she could kill it for sport. Then, she posed with the corpse.

Listen, that knife on my desk? That’s my stepfather’s and he he enjoyed hunting for sport and I went out hunting with him at a young age. I know that nature lovers can also enjoy putting themselves back in the direct line of the predatory food chain. They like to feel connected to nature by killing their dinner and I have no problem with that. I’ve plucked and eaten many a duck myself. But to kill animals that are near extinction?

Yeah, humans are definitely not my favorite mammal. And I’m pretty sure the average ele is more empathic than members of the Bachman clan.

So these ivory objects will stay with me. And I guess I’ll have mixed feelings about them forever.

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