The ivory consumer nations

The trade in ivory is ultimately driven by economics—there is a market demand from individuals, societies, or nations willing to pay a certain price for the products and a willingness on the part of hunters and traders to cater to this demand. With the possible exception of India over short periods of time, the ivory that originated in the major elephant range countries in recent centuries has almost entirely gone to countries that do not have elephants. Even the large volumes of African ivory that entered India in the past were destined for other consumers.

It is not an easy task to extricate the precise details of the international flow of ivory. The raw ivory imported by a country may not necessarily have catered to a local market, but could have been in transit to other destinations. Part of the ivory could also have been worked by artisans of the importing nation before being sold locally or further exported to overseas markets. India, for instance, was one of the major importers of African ivory from the early nineteenth century until the time of its independence in 1947 (fig. 8.11). Some of this was reexported to Britain and China, while a certain proportion was retained to supply local ivory carvers. A part of Britain's imports eventually reached countries such as the United States. Hong Kong's considerable imports of raw ivory in recent decades, both from Africa and through sources such as Belgium, have been almost entirely exported in finished forms.

Several interesting patterns in the use of ivory by consumer nations can be discerned. The use of ivory by native peoples to fashion simple carvings or jewels now gave way to the expression of more sophisticated art in the form of intricate carvings of very high value or to cheaper articles of mass consumption (fig. 8.14). The major ivory consumers during the nineteenth century were clearly the European countries. The Industrial Revolution had created new levels of economic prosperity for the people, and this was reflected in increased consumption of goods, one of which was ivory.

The imports of ivory by Great Britain, which averaged less than 100 tonnes annually during the late eighteenth century, began to rise steeply during the nineteenth century (fig. 8.11). They imported 250 tonnes by 1825, 400 tonnes by 1850, and peaked at 800 tonnes in 1875. Most, if not all, of the ivory was imported through India prior to 1836, when Great Britain began importing directly from East Africa. While the imports by Great Britain were the highest among the consumer nations, these reflect the general pattern of ivory consumption by Europe, including nations such as Portugal, Belgium, Holland, France, and Germany. Much ivory also found its way to the United States, either through Europe or directly. The use of this ivory was for mundane purposes. Clive Spinage lists the uses during 1889-1993 as knife handles

Figure 8.14

An exquisitely carved Ganesha (right; photo courtesy of Karnataka Police Department) and hankos or Japanese signature seals (below; photo courtesy of Vivek Menon). The use of ivory through history has shifted from the expression of art to manufacturing items of mass consumption.

Figure 8.14

An exquisitely carved Ganesha (right; photo courtesy of Karnataka Police Department) and hankos or Japanese signature seals (below; photo courtesy of Vivek Menon). The use of ivory through history has shifted from the expression of art to manufacturing items of mass consumption.

(34%), piano keys (32%), combs (18%), billiard balls (10%), and miscellaneous items such as prayer book covers. Although the imports of ivory by Great Britain declined since 1875, the quantities reaching Europe as a whole remained high. In 1911, Europe still imported 600-800 tonnes, with 265 tonnes going to Britain.

For centuries, Asia had a sophisticated ivory-carving industry. India and China were the two principal ivory importing and manufacturing nations. I briefly trace the Indian story because of the availability of better records, summarized by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne. High-quality ivory carving flourished in Orissa during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, possibly from locally available tusks. The Persian style of carving flourished during the Mughal rule in India in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The British colonization of India created a European demand for ivory articles that could be met only through mass manufacturing using machines rather than finely sculpting them by hand. In the words of art historian G. N. Pant, ivory carving declined from an art to a craft by the late nineteenth century as a result. By this period, most of the ivory used by Indian carvers was of African origin.

Although the trade in ivory between Africa and India is ancient, the graph of India's imports begins to climb from the early nineteenth century parallel to the rising demand in Europe. From an annual average of 150 tonnes during the first two decades, the imports rose to over 300 tonnes by 1850. Of this quantity, about 54% was reexported to Britain, 6% went to China, and only 37% was retained in the country for local manufacturing. The imports declined after 1856, but later rose again, peaking at an incredible 1,200 tonnes in 1886. There is some uncertainty about the actual annual imports since 1887, but a rather erratic overall decline is indicated since about 1905 (this may partly reflect lack of data).

Yet, from 1870 until World War I, British India was the largest trader in ivory and one of the three leading ivory manufacturing countries. The annual imports for 1875-1881 were about 250 tonnes, roughly the same as during 1945-1947, just prior to Indian Independence. Thereafter, the strict macro-economic policies of the government, aimed at conserving foreign currency through imposition of stiff customs duties on luxury goods, resulted in a steady decline of ivory imports.

During 1960-1971, an average of 37 tonnes was imported each year, while in 1979 this was only 5 tonnes, clearly insufficient to meet the requirements of carvers. At this time, there were about 7,200 ivory craftsmen in the country, mainly in the state of Kerala (3,000), Mysore (600), Delhi (2,000), and Jaipur (800). Even though over 50% of the carvers were based in southern India, they consumed much less of the ivory. The southern carvers worked mainly by hand, producing goods of much higher quality and value compared to the north, where machines were used in production. Most of the finished ivory was exported to Europe and the United States. Legal ivory from Indian elephants had always supplied only an insignificant proportion of the demand by carvers, but this may have gained in importance once the African imports became a trickle. In 1978, about 3 tonnes of Indian ivory were sold by the state forest departments to local carvers. In late 1986, the government imposed a complete ban on all trade in Indian ivory.

The period after World War II saw a significant shift in the centers of ivory trade, this time to East Asia. Some of the European countries did continue either to trade in or to consume significant quantities of ivory. Belgium, for instance, was a major entrepot of ivory during 1950-1978, but consumed little internally. The United Kingdom also traded in ivory again, but consumed little. France had a domestic carving industry that peaked in the early 1970s, with annual imports of 75-85 tonnes. Germany consumed 25-30 annually until the early 1970s, and after 1974 it increased annual imports to about 70 tonnes. The United States imported under 10 tonnes of ivory per annum until 1977, when this rose to 35 tonnes.

However, clearly the postwar centers shifted to Hong Kong and Japan. Hong Kong assumed importance as an entrepot of trade in raw ivory, while Japan emerged as the dominant end user of ivory products. After 1950, a majority of all ivory flows went into these countries; during the period 19791988, this figure was 75% of all ivory traded. From about 100 tonnes per annum during the early 1950s, Hong Kong's imports of ivory steadily rose to about 250 tonnes by the early 1970s. It then shot up to over 500 tonnes (peaks of 597 tonnes in 1973 and 721 tonnes in 1976), and it sustained these levels for a decade before they declined sharply after 1983.

A major part of the raw ivory imported by Hong Kong is used by its own carving industry, with the rest being stockpiled or reexported. During 1979-1988, over 30% of gross raw ivory imports were directly reexported to other Asian countries, principally Japan (60% of exports), but also China, Taiwan, India, and Thailand. About 95% of the processed ivory during the same period was exported to the United States (35% of exports), Europe (29%), Japan (27%), Singapore, and even African countries such as South Africa. Substantial quantities of raw ivory have also been stockpiled in Hong Kong; the estimate of Edward Barbier and colleagues is 3,127 tonnes "retained" during 1978-1988 and 670 tonnes "stockpiled" in early 1990. Overall, Hong Kong has clearly been only an entrepot of the trade and manufacturer of ivory articles in crude form for the overseas market. Very little ivory has actually been consumed locally.

The above picture is in contrast to Japan, which has an ivory import graph that also began to rise from 1950 onward, paralleling its postwar economic resurgence. Beginning with imports of less than 50 tonnes of raw ivory in 1950, it continued to take an average of 50-100 tonnes per year until the early 1960s, when the graph began to rise steeply to 300-400 tonnes during the 1970s. The imports reached a peak of 475 tonnes in 1983 before declining sharply. To this must be added a certain quantity of worked ivory imports. The local market has largely consumed the ivory entering Japan. About 64% of the ivory is used to make hankos or personal signature seals (fig. 8.14).

Indeed, it has been estimated that about 25% of the global consumption of raw ivory has been in the form of signature seals by Japan in recent decades.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment