Trans-species Aesthetics: Religion and Ivory

An article by Brian Christy in the October issue of National Geographic on illegal ivory harvest and the massacre of African elephants explores the religious dimensions of the ivory trade.

In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah.  … From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year.

In many instances, I think the responsibility of the scholar of religion is to point out to non-specialists the unimportance of religion.  There is a conventional wisdom, particularly in the west, that religion is hyperdeterminative of subjectivity.  We tend to assume that knowing “religion” is a reliable means of discerning in advance someone’s beliefs, politics, temperament, and lifestyle–that religion emerges out of a rationalized matrix that pristinely reflects the self.  This is seldom the case.

But in this instance, the emphasis on religion is correct.  The Filipino Catholics who carry ivory carvings of Jesus and the Thais who receive ivory amulets from Buddhist monks in exchange for donations are emblematic of one of the main ways that religion operates in the world: as an accretion of material-aesthetic practices with highly conserved characteristics.  “Ivory,” the Filipino priests would tell Christy, “honors God.”  This aesthetic conservatism (the reason why, for instance, Catholic priests continue to dress like provincial Late Antique Romans) draws a circle around certain practices and compels a slow rate of transformation within that circle.  The demand for ivory for religious artifacts is resistant to the international ban on the ivory trade precisely because of this enforced conservatism.  These are material tastes, material pleasures, “frozen in amber,” in Christy’s words.

But let’s be clear what kind of religion we’re dealing with here.  This is not–to contravene another Western stereotype–a religion of books and beliefs.  There is no mandate to create ivory religious artifacts in the Bible.  And the wide-scale slaughter of African elephants that underpins the global ivory trade is a direct contradiction of Buddhist “doctrines” of compassion.  What we are confronted with instead is a material religion, a religion of bodies savoring particular configurations of materiality and cultivating aesthetic bodily practices that attach material artifacts to affective frames of awe and devotion.  This aesthetic habitus is cultivated and passed down through communal practices forming stable transgenerational arcs–the infrastructure of material religious sensibilities.

By superseding cognition and language, these material aesthetic sensibilities point to religion in its very animality.  Rather than seeing religion as something performed by abstract, disembodied minds, perhaps it is better to understand it as a network of bodily resonances.  By these lights, elephants, too, are religious bodies, conjoining a highly complex system of embodied reactions to the world to create aesthetic complexes that parallel the social, material, and emotional dimensions of what we call in humans “religion.”

This is no metaphor.  Elephant grieving practices are well-known, as are their highly developed prosocial behaviors (caregiving).  Cynthia Moss writes of the elaborate greeting rituals that elephants carry out when meeting one another:

“[T]he best indicator of the strength of the bonds between elephants is the greeting ceremony.  Almost all elephants will greet one another but the nature and intensity of the greeting depends on who the elephants are, what their relationship is, and if it is a close one, how long they have been separated.  If Slit Ear’s family joins Estella’s while feeding in Longinye some of the family members might greet with an exchange of trunks–that is, put the tips of their trunks in each other’s mouths…. A greeting within the family, however, is a very different thing…. If Tia has been separated for a few days then the greeting ceremony will inevitably be far more intense and carried out with great energy and excitement.  The two subgroups of the family will run together, rumbling, trumpeting, and screaming, raise their heads, click their tusks together, entwine their trunks, flap their ears, spin around and back into each other, urinate and defecate, and generally show great excitement.  A greeting such as this will sometimes last for as long as ten minutes.” (“Elephant Memories,” pp. 127f)

Elsewhere she mentions the elephants’ “tears” on reunion “streaming down their faces.” (24)  Elephant ethologists have documented thousands of these instances, all of which point to the same complex layering of cognitive, social, and emotional components that in humans would be considered elementary forms of religion.

Elephant Greeting, Image via

Most striking, though, is the fact that the materiality of elephant tusks is aesthetic for elephants just as it is for humans.  Elephants use their tusks to greet one another.  Male elephants use their tusks as a display to attract the attention of females.  Aesthetic sensibilities often bleed across species lines.  What human bodies find beautiful and enticing–a peacock feather, a fox’s pelt, a cat’s purr, birdsong, a puppy’s wide eyes and playful spirit–have parallel aesthetic effects in non-human animals.  Elephant tusks become ingredients of human material religion because we find them aesthetically appealing.  What we forget is that they are an integral part of elephant aesthetic worlds, as well.

Elephant Massacre

The continuing ivory trade is a product of a variety of factors: a legacy of brutal colonialism in central Africa that left the region underdeveloped and impoverished (colonial and imperial powers hunted North African and South African elephant populations to extinction centuries ago), cancerous nationalisms and revolutionary movements, a prevalence of high-powered weapons funneled into the area by western and Russian arms dealers, rising demand in advancing economies such as China, and a global complex of ideological frames that views animal bodies primarily in terms of their potential to be chopped up into bloody commodities.  Perhaps understanding the affective parallels between human and elephant bodies can help us interrupt these latter frames and help to ensure that the elephants who remain–after the estimated 31,000 elephants killed throughout Africa each year, such as in the massacre at Bouba Ndjidah–can live safely.

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