Recently on Facebook, someone posted a story and the headline read that the black rhino was now extinct. The story must have been hyperbolized, because my reading revealed that the black rhino is extinct in certain regions but not entirely (thank the Gods!). They are critically endangered and some still exist in captivity or in sanctuaries. So there’s still time, but something needs to change fast. The frequency of news stories and environmental blog updates about illegal ivory poaching is absolutely alarming. It all goes back to greed, a desire for status, and traditional Asian medicine. The last is what is most troublesome to me in a spiritual sense.
To me, this is such a difficult topic to wade into because, despite my desire to do what is best for the environment and preserve our biodiversity, this is wrapped up in culture. Normally, I can maintain a sense of cultural relativism, but some things raise hackles because they no longer seem correct in the given context. And yet how do you stop a culture from wanting something that has been part of their traditional medicinal practices for centuries?
Vu Quoc Trung, a traditional medicine doctor who works out of a Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi, thinks [ivory] has some limited value.
“According to ancient medicine books, there are only three uses for rhino horn,” says Vu. “The first is to decrease temperature, the second is to detoxify and the third is to improve blood quality.”
Think of the many correspondences that exist within Western practices – whether for magic or traditional healing (and yes, I know there is a crossover). Once upon a time, it was customary to wall cats into buildings to protect the homes against evil spirits, for example. I doubt most modern Pagans would do that (perhaps some would if the cat were already dead…). Now that’s not the best analogy because cats aren’t endangered, but it suggests that people are able to change their practices despite what tradition tells us.
And yet we aren’t perfect here in the West. For example, we know how damaging mining for gems and metals can be, and yet we constantly buy them for our magical workings. Many vendors I speak to don’t actually know where their gems came from or, if they do, how they were mined. Who knows what ecosystem the mining is devastating? Who knows how the workers were treated as it was extracted from the Earth Mama? When you live in the US and import, you don’t really know the conditions unless you go there yourself. Perhaps access is the biggest problem – East and West. We feel that everyone who wants to practice magic (or traditional Chinese medicine) should have access to the materials. Therefore, they should be affordable. To keep things affordable, greedy people are willing to engage in unscrupulous practices to obtain and sell what we consumers demand. Often, the consumers ignorantly or willfully look the other way just so they can have their shiny crystals or ivory.
Unless our ancestors were wealthy, those who used natural resources in their magic and healing used what was readily available. Local herbs, local wood, local bones, river rocks, and the odd crystal or rough gem revealed beneath an upturned tree or boulder. Really rare and precious materials would be expensive. If an ancestor felt the need to utilize one in some sort of working, and if he or she could afford it, I bet it would have been purchased only for the most important workings or sacrifices. (I don’t have anything to cite for this, but if it was true for cloth and spice, I assume it was true for gems, ivory, and rare resins.)
So I don’t have any answer to the ivory problem. I’m hopeful the efforts to educate people in Asian countries about the plight of the elephants and rhinos will change their practices. Yet we also need to be more aware of where we get our own magical ingredients. We need to be conscious consumers and weigh our priorities. Personally, I find the best magical ingredients to be those grown and/or harvested by your own hands. It’s not always possible, but at least you know how they were obtained. When you work with the spirits of Nature and the Earth Mother, when you find them to be sacred, you simply must make these considerations.