Is it OK to accept a gift of ivory?
October 1, 2008 7:19 AM   Subscribe

I received an ivory pendant as a gift. Should I have accepted it?

Last week I was visiting South Africa on business. As I was leaving for the airport, a friend gave me the gift of a necklace with a (small) genuine elephant ivory pendant. It is about 1 inch long, .5 inches wide, and .4 inches in depth.

On the plane ride home I felt guilty for accepting the ivory. I thought it was bad and evil and meant that an elephant was illegally murdered for its tusks. But I recently read that elephants are being eliminated in some parts of South Africa for population control... so perhaps ivory is "OK" again.

In hindsight, should I have refused the gift out of ethical reasons? Is it illegal?
posted by nickgray to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it antique ivory or new ivory? I don't feel one bit guilty about the keys on my 1913 piano.
posted by orange swan at 7:28 AM on October 1, 2008

So it's not whether the elephant was killed for its ivory, its whether or not that kill occurred in accordance with some local law?
posted by xmutex at 7:29 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

In many places, ivory comes from state-approved culls to preserve biodiversity and thin elephant populations to allow particular populations to survive. In any case, the elephant's dead already and you didn't contribute to the demand for ivory because you didn't purchase any.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:30 AM on October 1, 2008

Hey Nick ;-) Is the item old? Ethically, it's viable to consider ivory over a certain age acceptable, since although its provenance could be shady, its collection can not encourage the culling of elephants in the here and now (this is why many ethical collectors still have antique ivory items in their inventory). If the item is brand new, and of unknown provenance, you're on shakier ground in terms of whether you're "supporting" the ivory trade by keeping the item.

If the item is old, I'd say that keeping the item is acceptable, and perhaps even a mark of respect in meaning that the poor beast didn't die entirely in vain. If the item is new and of unknown provenance, I'd personally pass the item on, sell it, or otherwise use it as an opportunity to donate to a charity dedicated to the preservation of elephant habitats.
posted by wackybrit at 7:31 AM on October 1, 2008

Without knowing the exact provenance of the pendant, I think it's silly to get worked up about it (unless of course you're simply against all ivory if it's not attached to an elephant).
posted by djgh at 7:32 AM on October 1, 2008

xmutex writes "So it's not whether the elephant was killed for its ivory, its whether or not that kill occurred in accordance with some local law?"

While I empathsize with xmutex's take on this, I might rephrase that to "had its tusk shacked off by poachers and left to die or cleanly killed as part of a culling operation meant to maintain an ecologically sustainable elephant population, or possibly even humanely de-tusked to keep it alive and safe from poachers."

However the ivory was acquired, the elephant's no longer using it. Without a provenance showing it was legitimately taken, you can't legally import it into the US if it's really local elephant ivory: "African elephants are controlled under the African Elephant Conservation Act, which forbids the importation of ivory into the United States since 1989."

So, -- while this is not legal advice --, you should have asked where the ivory came from, and refused it if was African elephant ivory.
posted by orthogonality at 7:40 AM on October 1, 2008

Can you imagine how your friend would have felt if you'd rejected it? "Thanks for the gift, but I think it's terrible and I'm ashamed to accept it." Just aaawful.

You're fine. The elephants forgive you.
posted by Plug Dub In at 7:41 AM on October 1, 2008

Maybe I'm the lone vice of dissent here--by wearing the pendant, you're broadcasting the the world that you think it's OK to wear ivory. The next person who admires your pendant may not be so picky about where his ivory comes from. But, hey, I feel the same way about diamonds and fur; I don't care how old, humane, or bloodless they are, they're fueling a demand.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:50 AM on October 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

In many cultures, it is the height of rudeness to refuse a gift, so I think you did well in accepting it. If you are uncomfortable about the ivory, why don't you sell it and donate the proceeds to an elephant conservation society?
posted by emd3737 at 7:54 AM on October 1, 2008

I have heard the argument advanced that, by accepting or wearing or buying any ivory, ethically-sourced or otherwise, you are contributing to a culture in which wearing ivory is acceptable, and helping to spur demand and prop up the market for ivory in general, both the humanely de-tusked and the hacked-off-and-left-to-die varieties.

(This is also an argument that people make about Canadian diamonds, secondhand leather, etc.)
posted by box at 7:56 AM on October 1, 2008

My university band had a tiger that the (pipe) bass drummer wore. With head and all still attached. I did a recruiting session or two, and every 30 minutes or so would get slagged for having a tiger skin around. My answer was always that it was donated in the 30's, killed in the 20's, and that we weren't legally allowed to sell it.

So assuming it's antique & not new, you're completely in the clear. If it's part of a planned cull, you're roughly in the clear. But either way there will be people giving you crap, and you should figure out what you'll say to them.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:56 AM on October 1, 2008

Giving gifts isn't exactly a great business idea... If you keep it you've hardly played a part in the ivory trade problem. I don't like or seek out furs, ivory and that kind of stuff but I treat it with respect when I come across it. I would never just throw it away. It's not valuable but it sickens me to think of it as worthless if you know what I mean.

(eg. I have a small ivory box that is missing one little piece from the lid but I would never seek out a replacement piece for it. If an one of ethical enough origins was tossed in my direction, I'd use it. I might pay a small amount to have it cut to size if I wasn't totally confident about doing it myself, just so it wasn't ruined and wasted. But other than that... Yuk!!)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:28 AM on October 1, 2008

You were right to accept it and you could have caused great offense by refusing the gift. What you do now with it is up to you. You don't have to wear or display it if you think it symbolizes something unethical, and you don't have to keep it at all.
posted by rmless at 8:34 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ethically I have the opinion of MrMoonPie and box in that I think wearing ivory absent any other social cues, implies that it's an okay thing to wear. People make this argument about fur and diamonds. You will have to decide personally how you feel about that particular issue. I don't think there was any way you could have easily refused the gift without making a thing about it though, so I'd just worry about what you do moving forward, not what you can't change.
posted by jessamyn at 9:04 AM on October 1, 2008

I once read an article about an archaeologist digging in an ancient Mayan sacrificial site. Here he was, unearthing the remains of people who had been ceremoniously tortured before being killed. What struck me was a comment he made as he unearthed the remains of these forgotten people. He said, to paraphrase, "I try to treat them with care and love now knowing that they were not treated the same at their last moments." If it were me, I would put the necklace in a safe and quiet place and let it rest.
posted by oflinkey at 9:09 AM on October 1, 2008

Oops, forgot the first part of the statement:

I think that the refusal of the gift would have caused more of a problem, but I personally would avoid wearing it. The display of ivory (and fur, and diamonds) is problematic in that it does encourage a demand or desire for the product. I think this is less true of ivory where I live (US), but the demand is not totally eliminated.
posted by oflinkey at 9:12 AM on October 1, 2008

Accepting the gift was the right thing to do.

Feel free to take it out back and bury it.
posted by Slenny at 1:04 PM on October 1, 2008

It's hard to say if the ivory was sourced legally or not, but you were very gracious to accept the gift and not make a fuss about it. I make jewelry, and my husband's grandmother gave me a small box with several small, carved ivory pendants in it to "use how I would like" - I keep them in a small dish on my workbench, and it's nice to be reminded of Grandma and her travels, but I would never use them. I agree with Mr.MoonPie's comment that using/wearing signifies some tacit approval that I would rather not give.
posted by ersatzkat at 1:53 PM on October 1, 2008

Wear it, enjoy it, and never forget that it came from an animal. "Disposing" of it, whether by (sentimental but pointless) burial or forgetting it in a box seems disrespectful and wasteful. I have a (third-hand) rabbit fur-collared jacket that I found and wear all the time, but I'm also a vegetarian and my (freeloading and useless) room-mate is a tiny bunny.

Never buy any more ivory, don't tell anyone that it's ivory, and give some cash to living elephants.
posted by rhinny at 10:44 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

depends if its new or old. old is okay, new is not.
posted by junipero at 5:16 PM on October 16, 2008

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