Dani Garavelli: Elephant in the room

Prince William’s offer to destroy royal ivory antiques has been applauded by some conservationists, but is it the best way to protect endangered species, asks Dani Garavelli

Prince William wants to destroy his familys ivory antiques. Picture: Reuters
Prince William wants to destroy his familys ivory antiques. Picture: Reuters

IT MAY seem like an unlikely alliance:­ Prince William, who earlier this month was shooting wild boars and stags on a hunting trip in ­Cordoba, and Jane Goodall, who has dedicated her life to the study and ­welfare of chimpanzees. Yet it was to the veteran primatologist, with whom he shares a passion for conservation, that he apparently mooted an unconventional­ move in the war against illegal wildlife trading: the destruction of the extensive ivory collection at Buckingham Palace.

Over the centuries, the Royal Family has accumulated more than 1,200 intricately carved ivory artefacts, including a throne and footstool made for Queen Victoria and a selection of fans, cups, tankards and sword handles. Most of them are works of art and pre-date the days when African elephants were ­regarded as an endangered species. But the Prince, who recently launched a ­coalition of seven organisations aimed at stopping the illegal trade in wildlife, ­believes destroying the ivory could send a powerful message about the iniquity of owning a material which has long been the source of turmoil.

No-one could argue with Prince ­William about the scale of the problems caused by the ivory trade. For centuries foreigners have killed elephants and ­rhinos for their tusks, with ivory playing a central role in the slave trade. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, set in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century, ivory came to symbolise the greed and violence of the white man.

Today, the slaughter continues. Despite a ban on international trading, 50,000 elephants are believed to have been killed last year, most of them illegally, to satisfy the growing demand for ivory, particularly from increasingly affluent China, with one expert warning the animals could be extinct within 12 years. Rhino poaching is also rife, with a record 1,000 killed last year in South ­Africa alone.

In China, the sale of ivory, regarded as a good luck or status symbol, is supposed to be restricted to about 130 government-licensed shops, with each item meant to come with a certificate to prove it is legitimate. And yet the black market thrives. It is estimated as much as 90 per cent of ivory sold in the country is illegal, with certificates faked or recycled.

In Africa, gangs of poachers are operating on a scale unseen since the 1980s, and wildlife is not the only casualty, with 1,000 rangers killed in the past decade and the trade in ivory used to fuel conflict in already volatile nations. Extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and the Janjaweed are hunting down elephants then using the tusks to buy weapons. The organised crime syndicates they link up with are in turn exploiting civil ­unrest, unprotected borders and venal officials to ship ivory across the world.

In proposing to destroy the Royal Family’s collection, Prince William is responding to the plea from a group of conservationists who believe stigmatising the possession of ivory would help tackle the problem. Virginia McKenna, founder of the Born Free Foundation, said the suggestion was “amazing” and offered to help destroy the stock. But there are others who point out that the items are works of art and believe their destruction would be an act of wanton vandalism. “We have to recognise that [these items] exist. Ivory was a treasured material that was worked on by craftsmen of the highest order during the Renaissance,” said art critic Brian Sewell. “It’s pointless. I can’t see the connection between saving elephants and destroying works of art made centuries ago.”

There are those too who believe that destroying ivory, making it harder to come by, merely inflates its value; a better answer, they say, would be to flood the market with existing ivory, although previous attempts to do this have backfired.