The Ivory Traitor


In Saint Cloud, Minnesota there is an assistant professor who is a traitor not only to his profession, but to those he mentors (he teaches philosophy to the young minds at St. Cloud State University), to himself, to humanity and to Mother Earth.


He is a self-proclaimed ivory trader.


Yiwei ‘Steve’ Zheng, a native of Shanghi, recently pleaded guilty to smuggling ivory from the United States to China in April 2011 and exporting rhino horns in July 2010. He could be fined $500,000 and spend up to 10 years in prison as he awaits sentencing on May 9, 2016. I’m hopeful he will spend many long hours considering the moral implications of running not only an  illegal online business but one  that takes so many lives, both human and animal, because this is a man who knew better. At least one would think so given his credentials.


But I wonder if he realizes the true damage he has done.


As a link in the ivory market, he has killed not one elephant, but many, just as surely as if he had dropped a round in the chamber, taken deadly aim, and then butchered the animal himself. Though he might not willing see it, his hands are as bloody as the hands of the slayer. He is a member of the poacher’s brigade and a killer of more than one endangered species.


His defense spoke of  ‘antique’ ivory, ivory ‘harvested’ (nice name for a brutal act) before the laws went into effect which smacks a lot of the old rationalizing we tend to do when we know we are doing something wrong but we want to do it anyway. A way to make our acts somehow acceptable. I have no doubt he fully understood what he was doing.


Many years ago I had to explain similar actions to my youngest brother. We were waiting in Banff, Alberta for our horsepack trip into the Canadian Rockies. He was sixteen years old and being sixteen he wanted to buy an ivory handled knife that caught his eye. I said he couldn’t because it was ivory. His thinking at the time was, but the animal is already dead, so why not? I spoke to him about the chain of events and how buying ivory creates the market and causes more animals to die. I’m not sure I convinced him but luckily we had bigger plans in the wilderness that week. (Years later he told me it had made quite an impression on him and got him thinking on like matters.)


Yiwei Zheng is not sixteen. He is not uneducated. He is not impoverished. He is just greedy. He is amoral and one of the nameless few blights on humanity. But he is the minority.


On the other end of the spectrum from Yiwei Zheng is the park ranger who stands between the poachers and the wildlife on a dark night. Stands between them.


The rangers and guards are not protecting their property, family, possessions or countrymen. They are putting their lives on the line to protect wild animals. And many are paying the ultimate price to stop endangered species from becoming extinct. These men and women are under-gunned, out-numbered and outmaneuvered by high tech poachers but still they stand there on that invisible line and say ‘Enough. We will not agree to the senseless slaughter of the innocent, it is not what humanity will allow.’ They are, and those like them, the highest caliber of humanity. They have nothing to gain, and much to lose, yet they stand there because it is the right thing to do.


How’s that for a lesson in philosophy.


A person could get bogged down in what seems to be a losing battle in the ivory trade, but that is not necessarily true. What began as a few men standing guard over protected wildlife with an old rifle while a poacher’s helicopter flew overhead are now being replaced with well- trained, better-equipped wildlife militias.   The men and women who protect wildlife throughout the world are becoming a viable force to counter the poachers through private funding, donations and international laws.


 That in itself speaks volumes of where we are as a species, of what our society will no longer accept. When the majority of people say ‘enough’ the tides change. It is the way nature works. Then there will be no ivory trade, no rhino horn traders, no trophy hunts because the majority of humanity simply will not allow it. They will not allow the likes of Yiwei Zheng to define our own humanity.


And as long as we move towards that day, we can feel better than we did the day before.


We can have hope.


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