It’s been five years since Patti Smith declared New York dead to the demimonde, so in a high-rent district in Manhattan it is surprising to run across a store with grotesquely ugly things that one couldn’t possibly imagine even the mistress of the most thuggish Russian mafiosi buying. Yet there they were, row upon row of vomitous carved ivory Buddhas, horses, castles, and, of course, elephants, some labeled mammoth teeth (not) on 57th between 5th and 6th.

I stopped, stunned by both their ugliness and obvious illegality. Except for antiquities, the sale of ivory has been banned in the U.S. for years, and this kitsch was clearly contraband scraped from the poaching that is threatening to make Africa’s forest elephants extinct within the next decade. Yet there they were, magnificent animals turned into cheap tourist crap that can be hawked with impunity until stricter regulations from the Obama administration kick in later this year.

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There’s rarely good news on the environment: tidal waves threaten to engulf half the planet, the other half is turning to desert, summer bee stings and honey are soon to be quaint memories along with human life itself, according to the latest news on the Sixth Great Extinction. But last Friday, a dozen blocks away in Times Square, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ran a ton of confiscated ivory through a rock crusher and it was good. Yes, it was a “media event” but I truly believe, cynic though I am after covering the environment through the grimness of the past decades, that the authorities have learned a few things and they are – finally – doing it right.

The question of elephants is as complex as extinction itself, involving global trade, war, peace, government corruption, poverty, overpopulation. Despite this rat’s nest of human failings, governments and conservationists, through trial and grievous error, have found an approach that may actually work: 1. stop the demand with a slick, energetic PR campaign using celebrities to make killing endangered animals uncool in China, 2. stop trafficking by stepping up enforcement in East Africa ports, and 3. stop the killing on the ground.

Stopping the killing on the ground was the old way of doing things. You could call it going medieval on the poacher’s asses – but “going colonial” would be more accurate. Twenty-five years ago, the Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey temporarily halted poaching by turning his country’s wildlife agency into a paramilitary force. A lot of poachers died; one every four days, by most estimates.

It was a Band-Aid, as outdated as the mortifying Do-They-Know-It’s-Christmas song that has become a bad joke among hip Africans, and it fell off. Going after poor black guys with guns is like picking off the drug dealer on the corner in The Wire; the real players are international.  The market for ivory is the fourth-largest illicit trade in the world, after drugs, human trafficking, and arms. And the long-term threat is both mundane and unmanageable: population growth. There are just too many people living in the bush where elephants used to roam free. Too many people all over the world, in fact.

But even twenty-five years ago, there were ways to make it work. While Kenya was shooting poachers, countries like Namibia and South Africa were building a thriving trade in wildlife products, gaining support in local communities for wild animals that had formerly been considered threats or nuisances. Even today, with poaching at record levels, elephants in those countries are faring better.

To be fair, Leakey didn’t have much choice: under pressure from Western animal rights groups Kenya had banned hunting in the 1970s, along with any trade whatsoever in products made from wild animals. This made it impossible to earn enough money from wildlife for community conservation, plus it alienated native Kenyans whose traditions included hunting. When it came to saving elephants, Kenya became an aid junkie – and the results were about what you’d expect. The animals disappeared. They just went.

Richard Leakey, recently appointed chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, his third stint with the agency, has stepped up his game. So have other people in Kenya. The Northern Rangelands Trust is working with communities in high-poaching areas, convincing elders to crack down on young men seduced by the cash they make by killing animals.

It’s a start. But the real chokehold has to be the global market. Unfortunately, American politicians have injected politics into a cause that should be valued on its own merits. In the U.S., politicians and conservationists, including Hillary Clinton, are selling elephant protection as part of the war on terror, claiming that groups like Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in Nigeria are funded by the illegal ivory trade. But people in Africa say that the real movers in the trade are the criminal gangs, a dozen or more, who dominate the ivory trade worldwide.

The opportunism of the American foreign policy establishment is cynical and unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. A change is gonna come, or it sure looks that way, and the forces are bigger than any one politician, whether it’s Hillary or Kenya’s Leakey. As China becomes an industrial power, minds are changing. Three-quarters of people polled in Hong Kong, a major entrepôt for the ivory trade, want to outlaw the sale of ivory. More than half support an outright ban.

It’s important that we get it right this time. It may be our last chance. But the debate over ivory has always been complicated. The usual chorus of free market contrarians say events like last Friday’s ivory crush will raise the price of ivory as speculators stock up, anticipating a shortage. These arguments, plausible decades ago, sound worn and dated. Ivory isn’t like dope. Ivory doesn’t get you high: money does.

If there’s no demand, the elephants will stop dying. Or at least, they’ll stop dying quite so fast. Who knows? There might still be hope that elephants will survive as a species just long enough to outlive the inevitable crash of civilization itself.

Culture changes. The days of CBGB are gone. The grotesque shop on 57th Street will close, or be closed by the authorities. Bad taste is timeless – now that’s a law of nature – but if we are lucky and smart and very, very quick, the ivory trade will be strangled by history. It’s a reminder that human progress, while it may pale in comparison to our follies, isn’t entirely mythical.

 

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