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Antiques

The television show “Vice” airs on HBO on Friday nights and offers in-depth coverage of news, or perhaps I should say, a more visceral reality based coverage of the news. I watched because one of the segments was on the vanishing rhino population which is being decimated by poachers who can make as much as $5,000 for a rhino horn. One clip showed a rhino mutilated by poachers and yet still alive—it was both appalling and depressing to see such wanton cruelty. I have talked about the cultural imperative that certain items have in particular cultures and “Vice” made it very clear that this is an absolute truth. One young entrepreneur in Hanoi had some rhino horn that was his father’s and which he inherited.

He quite obviously believed that rhino horn had certain qualities that would keep his body healthy that no diet or medicine could. Another man, a cancer patient, had given up on chemotherapy, but not on rhino horn. Rhino horns, which are not dissimilar from either hair or finger nails as it is made of keratin, will grow back if they are cut which has prompted one African entrepreneur to breed rhinos and cut their horns.

Quite naturally, he wishes to see the trade in horn legalized. In a way, it makes sense since the cultural imperative seems impossible to reverse. If I were to look for the root of the problem, I would say that the cultural imperative is at the core of it. The poachers recognize and exploit it. The cultural imperative is also what drives the trade in ivory. Owning carved ivory in China, I am told, is not unlike how Americans felt in the 1950’s about modern conveniences and one’s status for having the latest labor saving machine.

In China and many other parts of Southeast Asia and Japan, carved ivory offers an elevated status to the owner of such objects. This is not true anywhere else. Americans who buy ivory carvings are buying the decoration, not the status. I was asked by a friend to see if I could put myself into the position of the US government and try to figure out how I would try to stop the slaughter of endangered animals.

I honestly don’t know just how I would. The cultural divide that separates the US from both Africa and Asia, is significant. One thing I would not do, however, is pretend that they do not exist. This is where I would look for solutions, not in the hope that a law designed to affect the American public would have any consequence. 

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