Cosmopolitan Elephants: Conservation Publics & The Ivory Trade

By Will Andrews, Aberystwyth University

A recent article in Transactions by Maan Barua (2014) discusses the positioning of elephants as non-human participants of cosmopolitanism. Through a multi-sited ethnography of elephant conservation in the UK based around the Elephant Family organised London Elephant Parade in 2010 and Mark Shand’s (1992) journey by elephant across India. Barua (p569) explains that the Indian elephant can be understood by following Ulrich Beck’s (2004) explanation of a global public arena, transnational processes and banal consumption as constitutive features of being cosmopolitan. However Barua’s article positions the elephant, a non-human actor as participant in each of these and as such develops a convincing argument for the understanding of non-human cosmopolitanism. Importantly he concludes that presenting Asian elephants in a certain way can, “evoke global ecological responsibilities and concerns for creatures far removed from the worlds of city publics” (p567).

By understanding elephants as cosmopolitan and interrogating and re-harnessing this circulation, conservation practices can be mobilised to protect endangered non-human actors such as the Indian elephant and other endangered species. This article was published shortly before a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (hereafter, EIA), titled Vanishing Point’, the findings of which showed the importance of such a reading of non-human cosmopolitanism particularly when it comes to African elephants (EIA, 2014). The report’s major findings are related to the transnational trade in illegal ivory, in particular allegations of a Chinese market for illegal purchases made in Tanzania (Kaiman & Vaughan, 2014; Russo, 2014).

African Elephant (Wikimedia Commons, 2007).

Ivory as a transnational product can be understood by some as the commoditisation of the elephant and in this way the ivory trade of both Indian and African elephants is a very different example of elephant circulation through banal consumption and transnational processes (Beck, 2004). In this way the elephant is co-constituted as cosmopolitan by way of its ivory. This cosmopolitan understanding is something which Barua discusses in very different terms with Indian elephant conservation, however viewing the elephant as cosmopolitan also offers a way to redress this.  By presenting the Indian elephant in a certain anthropomorphised way, for example the 2010 London Elephant Parade (p564) it is possible to draw attention to elephants’ distant transnational plight and to garner support to combat this. “It is through rhizomatic becomings-with a plethora of non-human bodies that notions of cosmopolitan connections across difference are co-constituted” (p571).  It is these cosmopolitan connections which surround both the ivory trade and which can help in to promote ecological responsibility.

Elephant Parade, Green Park, London (Wikimedia Commons, 2010).

This article has wider implications both within the development of ethnographic research of more-than-human actors and for mobilising conservation of endangered species (p 569) such as Indian and African elephants.

books_icon Barua, M. (2014) ‘Circulating elephants: unpacking the geographies of a cosmopolitan animal’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(4), 559-573

books_icon Beck, U. (2004) ‘Cosmopolitical realism: on the distinction between cosmopolitanism in philosophy and the social sciences’, Global Networks, 4, 131-156

60-world2 EIA (2014) ‘Vanishing Point- Criminality, Corruption & the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants’, Published online 6th Nov 2014

60-world2 Kaiman, J. & Vaughan, A. (2014) ‘Elephant ivory price ‘spiked as VIPs snapped up thousands of kilos’ ‘,The Guardian,  Published online 6th Nov 2014

60-world2 Russo, C. (2014) ‘Q&A: Report Alleges Governments’ Complicity in Tanzanian Elephant Poaching’, National Geographic, Published online 6th Nov 2014

books_icon Shand, M. (1992) Travels on my elephant, Penguin, London.

60-world2 Wikimedia Commons (2007) ‘Elephant near ndutu’

60-world2 Wikimedia Commons (2010) ‘Elephant Parade, Green Park, London’

Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: