Tusks and Skins

A short story about a seizure of two crates of illegal wildlife products as a result of poaching.

My colleague nodded solemnly from the doorway as I entered the room and closed the door behind me. Alone, I knelt in front of the crates that had been seized by the UK Border Force that afternoon. There were two of them, two crates too many. The contents of the crates had been smuggled all the way from China in suspiciously heavy suitcases, their stupendous weight being the immediate giveaway. Since then, the seized products had been separated into crates, ready for me to assess and ultimately organise their destruction. It is a bitter sweet job; I relish the role I play in devaluing the market that perpetuates the arrival of crates like these in the UK, but it is with great sorrow that I handle and obliterate these terrible remnants of beautiful animals. With my heart heavy with trepidations of what was inside, I went to pry them open.

The first crate was a casket for a stack of limp, musty tiger skins. Wilting strips of tiger lay ready to become unnatural rugs and gruesome fashion accessories. In the wild, tigers are breathtaking animals; their supple bones and graceful limbs allow them to glide through open spaces, their shimmering fur animated by the breeze, by their own heartbeats. But their beauty renders them vulnerable. There is a sadistic demand for these creatures’ skin. Some people would rather walk over a tiger’s fur as a limp, lifeless rug than see a tiger walk. There are people who would rather have two skins, who would rob a tiger of theirs in order to drape its skin over their own.

My colleague had informed me before I entered that these skins were likely to have belonged to female tigers. That meant that they were potential mothers to young cubs; behind every murdered mother lay a puddle of helpless infants, unable to survive alone. And of course, each murdered mother was one less vessel through which to continue the species. Each deceased tiger in this box represented not only the deaths of several more young cubs, but also the extermination date of the entire species moving closer in Mother Earth’s calendar. Without a steady population of tigers in the first place, there cannot be a stable cycle of mating, conception and birth. The threat of extinction looms over these handsome creatures like a steadily darkening cloud, threatening to burst open and drown them all.

I know the facts. Illegal animal poaching is perpetuated by the profitability of the market. The high demand for ivory and animal skins is largely continued by some cultural perceptions of the ownership of these animal parts as desirable status symbols. In 257 separate confiscations made between 2009 and 2014, the UK Border Force found at least 1,165 ivory products, 127 rhino horn items and 1,682 tiger products. The most frequent country of origin for these commodities was China, closely followed by the USA. The fact that these seizures were made in the UK shows that the UK is also a player in the illegal wildlife product trade. The wide range of countries globally that contribute to the trade is daunting, because it shows just how advanced the problem is, and how difficult it is to combat.

I turned my attention to the second box. I wrenched it open and my eyes were confronted with a collection of ivory tusks. Each was no longer than two or three metres. Their size is shockingly minute when you consider that they are a relatively small part of such a colossal animal. The enormous elephant is murdered, left to rot in the dust, all for two short, insubstantial stretches of tusk. Sometimes, the ivory is ground up and used in traditional Chinese medicines, despite there being no scientific evidence that it ameliorates any human illnesses. More often it is carved into ornaments or jewellery, and made into purposeless extravagances for humans. But none of the beauty endowed in the living creature is carried over into this deathly form. Each ivory ornament is a mournful, skeletal reminder of the magnificent animal that suffered. Each ivory pendant that hangs from a human neck is a ghostly clock’s pendulum, ticking away the moments until all that is left of the elephant species is this insignificant chip of tusk.

I sat back on my heels. I felt suffocated by the presence of so many dead animals all packed into one room with me, when they should be alive and spread across acres and acres of blissful expanses of land in the wild. Instead, they were stacked one on top of the other before me, in stuffy coffin-like crates, transported far from home. The knowledge that the ruthless poachers that provided these crates of animal parts were likely to be in the process of gaining more sickened me, and thoughts of them converting precious animals into dirty money, pressed in on me.

To end the fight against poaching, we need to change the mind-set of entire cultures, we need to devalue the worth of an ivory ornament, of a tiger skin rug, and we need to eradicate the financial gain made from poaching. A tiger needs its fur and an elephant needs its tusks far more than we do, and we have to realise this before its too late. I was overwhelmed with indignation, with disgust, and with a trembling desire to fight for the lives of these beautiful animals. I closed the crates. I wanted to close my eyes too, and close myself off from the injustices before me. But that would not do. Tearing my eyes away from the crates like a man tearing his eyes away from the grave of a loved one, I accepted the loss of these creatures, but I kept my eyes wide open. I vowed to stare the poaching industry straight in the face, and to do all I could to ensure there would be no more crates.

Written by Jodie Sheehan
Jodie Sheehan is a 19-year-old second year student at the University of York. As a student of English Literature, books are her life; she’s always reading, or writing about what she’s reading. Outside the book world, she’s loves adventure in the real world. Travelling and seeing new things are what make her tick and spurs her on, from small trips to Edinburgh Fringe, to never-ending treks up Machu Picchu, Jodie is on a quest to see the world – and get as much of it as possible down on paper on the way. For her, documenting the experience is all part of the fun: she strives to capture each moment in a flurry of photography and flowery language.