In an effort to raise awareness about elephant poaching, Arnold Schwarzenegger recently took an elephant tusk, laced it with explosives, set it on a bale of hay, and blew it to smithereens.
"Hey, stop killing 96 elephants every day just because of this ivory," said the 68-year-old Terminator star and former California governor, who is roughly the size of a small elephant, while brandishing a large tusk in front of a tank in a video of the stunt.
"Let's get rid of the demand once and for all," he said, and then proceeded to turn the tusk, which was donated by the Los Angeles Zoo, into a pile of ivory dust.
Schwarzenegger has teamed up with the Wildlife Conservation Society to promote its 96 Elephants campaign, named so because an average of 96 elephants are poached daily in Africa. While blowing up an ivory tusk may seem like a counterintuitive way of raising awareness about the plight of elephants, destroying ivory actually has a long history as an effective way to get people to take notice of the near-decimation of the species.
In 1800, it's estimated that as many as 26 million elephants roamed freely across Africa. But as ivory products became trendy in western and Asian cultures, poaching increased and the number of elephants plummeted. By 1989, just 600,000 elephants remained. That year, conservationist Richard Leakey, who was then Kenya's wildlife service director, came up with the idea of burning a 12-ton stockpile of ivory to raise awareness at how close we were to losing the species. The burn was a success: It made headlines around the globe and caused enough of a stir that, one year later, the sale of ivory was banned worldwide.
Unfortunately, many governments made allowances for the sale of ivory that was already on the market—antiques and family heirlooms, for example—making a convenient cover for fresh ivory. It's extremely difficult to tell if ivory is antique or from a recently-slaughtered elephant, and so the illegal ivory trade continues to thrive. Governments are slowly starting to end the legal ivory trade but in the meantime poachers still have a lucrative market and continue to slaughter a staggering number of wild elephants, with less than half a million left in the wild.
So that's why conservationists still turn to destroying ivory as an eye-catching way of drawing attention to the cause. It's an effort to both raise awareness and symbolically devalue the ivory. The goal is to convey the message that ivory is not precious and special like a gemstone, but a horrific symbol of the ongoing massacre of one of the world's most unique creatures. A common refrain at such events is that ivory only has value when it's still attached to a living, thriving elephant.
Since that first ivory burn in 1989, there have been dozens of similar demonstrations around the world. Malawi, one of the poorest nations in the world, recently burned $76 million worth of ivory. Stateside, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has fed ivory stockpiles into rock crushers in Times Square and Denver. Nations including China, France, and Gabon have burned or crushed their ivory stockpiles. And while some would argue we should hang on to a handful of historically significant ivory items, destroying stockpiles always seems to draw a crowd and, ideally, spreads the message that ivory poaching is still very much a thriving business.
But just in case people are growing weary of seeing ivory crushes, watching the Terminator turn a tusk into a Fourth of July show will surely catch their attention once again.