Endangered Species and Antiquities

Ben Macintyre has an excellent article in today’s TimesOnline, Elephants: the way to beat looters. He begins by describing looting taking place in Iraq:

Iraq has become a looter’s paradise, and history’s worst nightmare. The ancient sites of Mesopotamia, the very cradle of civilisation, are subjected to daily plunder. Friezes from the walls of the Assyrian city of Hatra are sawn off using stonecutters. Entire Sumerian cities have been erased from history by organised looters armed with guns and diggers, hacking down to bedrock and extracting everything of value: pottery, sculptures, bottles, anything that can make a buck on the international market. From the air, the ancient sites look like the surface of the moon, pitted and cratered.

The destruction has been well-documented, but Macintyre ties the trend to looting which takes place elsewhere, in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He sees promise in comparing the looting of sites with smuggled antiquities:

[A]rchaeologists are turning to the lessons of wildlife conservation in their efforts to protect the world’s most threatened sites. The answer to the plague of looting may lie with the endangered elephant.

Looters of ancient sites are operating in precisely the same way as poachers hunting elephant, rhino or apes: ivory, rhino horn and bush meat attain their value by a combination of illegality and rarity. One solution may be to treat ancient sites as, in effect, protected wildlife preserves, which visitors pay to visit just as they pay to see rare animals in their natural surroundings.

Our attitudes towards rare animals have altered radically. Rather than capture them for zoos, or kill and mount them on our walls, we prefer to see them in game reserves, preserved as nearly as possible in a state of nature. The same should apply to the relics of history. Where once ancient relics were the preserve of museums, today we also want to see them, with others of their kind, in context.

I think that’s exactly right, and there are at least three very interesting ideas playing out here.

First, as I see it, to prevent looting in source nations requires three components: a respect for cultural heritage among the locals, an effective legal framework which encourages compliance, and sufficient enforcement resources. The absence of any one of these allows an illicit trade; and all three are lacking in Iraq.

Second, the comparison between endangered species and antiquities is interesting. The two trades are a study in contrast though. The multilateral framework regulating wild animals works on a tiered system of protection under CITES. The multilateral protection of antiquities under the relevant UNESCO and UNIDROIT Conventions does not work nearly as well. Part of the reason may be the way the public views both problems. Broadly speaking if you see an endangered animal in a zoo, I think you get a visceral reaction at seeing a wild animal penned up. I don’t think you get the same kind of reaction when you see an antiquity in a museum, because you cannot tell by looking at a vase or sculpture if it was properly excavated or looted in most cases.

Third, and most interesting is the idea of heritage tourism. This has been successful in many countries, and is a great way to encourage locals to respect and preserve their heritage. It’s benefits are potentially long-range, but there are risks and drawbacks. As Macintyre points out, this may not be an option for Iraqis if the current theft and destruction continues.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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