Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

In This Review

Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants
By John Frederick Walker
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009
320 pp. $25.00

Walker's well-written and informative book tells two somewhat distinct stories. The first two-thirds of the book provide an entertaining history of man's fascination with ivory, from prehistoric amulets to the massive global trade in the nineteenth century, when tens of thousands of African elephants were butchered every year to generate raw material for the manufacture of billiard balls, piano keys, buttons, and combs. (In effect, ivory was the plastic of the nineteenth century.) The trade demonstrated a nineteenth-century version of globalization, with an ivory commodity chain that extended from colorful East African slave traders and warlords to piano and comb manufacturers in Connecticut. The last third of the book switches gears and discusses the impact of the international ban on the ivory trade that has been in effect since 1990. Walker argues that the ban has been inefficient and ineffectual. In Africa's broken-down parts, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the slaughter of elephants continues unabated, feeding an illicit trade, mostly to Asia, while in the well-administered game parks of southern Africa, elephant overpopulation is posing substantial environmental and economic problems. The continuing trade ban has also led to huge ivory stockpiles -- and thus foregone revenues for the parks.