The Burden of Beasts

Melody Kemp
Jun 13th, 2014

Asia risks extinction for the animals of Africa and Asia in exchange for ivory and the imaginary powers of penis and horn.




Last year, I heard a poaching in Salamanca.

The intense, beautifully chiselled British artist Asher Jay projected a series of stills onto a huge screen in the meeting hall. The evocative photos accompanied a soundtrack recorded in Africa of the innocuous short pops that represented shots from automatic weapons used by poachers when they dropped an African bull elephant.

I say “dropped” because the animal did not die immediately. Jay’s thin, muscular body stiffened as the kill shots echoed around the conference hall, bouncing off the walls, causing some delegates to flinch. I felt my hands form into fists: my home is in a land of elephants; I love their social intelligence and the frisson of being up close with so large an animal.  

Impassively, Jay told us that the last shot hit the elephant’s head side-on. The massive beast had sunk, still alive and bleeding, to the sandy ground on which, a few moments before, it had been fully alive.  What followed, I carry with me to this day.  The creaking, cracking sound of the tusks being prized off the animal as it lay dying. Its tortured groans were something I never want to hear again in my life.

There are two sides to this story. One the superstitious, the vainglorious; the other the proven, the empirical. One is based on death, the other on life.

I have read that many of those who prize ivory and rhino horn believe that tusks are merely replaceable teeth, rendering these two iconic large animals as though they were human five-year-olds. While the removal of one or two is painful, they say it will result in the sprouting of replacements.

This belief of course denies the death of the animals.  The argument and its believers are, at best, disingenuous.

They must also know that rhino horn is made of densely packed keratin, exactly the same stuff our nails and hair are made from. That means that raiding the local barber’s floor or manicurist’s bins and steeping the prized horny toenails in Johnny Walker would have exactly the same medicinal properties and effects as a rhino horn martini …  that is to say, none at all.

In fact horny is what it’s all about n’est pas?  After all, logic plays no part in this. So is it the direct symbolism of the horn, or the symbolic power over death that is the real aphrodisiac?

It’s hard to imagine why some people find a dead animal or its parts erotic, or even decorative. What do they think about while drinking tiger-penis wine?  That the splendid cat, its sinuous muscles rippling like the ground in an earthquake, can get along without its own? That is still walks the earth squeaking with a falsetto roar at the trees? Does la petite morte require une morte finale to provide the ultimate pleasure?

What is it about male sexuality – in this case, clearly, Asian male sexuality – that requires animals to die, so that imagined prowess can once again bring some form of self belief, stratified orgasms reached and anxiety relieved?

Ascher changed the picture on the screen.  The image she projected was of an adult panda with her offspring, over which Ascher had superimposed a target. Crrrrkkk ... Bang! Another shot resounded through the hall.  I could imagine the thump as the panda hit the ground, and the squeak of its young, and the indignation that would follow.


Choose Life

The eagles and vultures wheeled over Spain’s Monfrague National Park in Extremadura, eyeing each other suspiciously.  Well, I imagined that, but they are after the same food, though perhaps not in the same order.

I could feel my blood, nerve endings and lungs expanding and contracting, my muscles tightening both with age and the feeling of anticipation and existential joy. I imagined I could feel every hair as it was snapped by the wind channelled though the gorge. While it’s an absurdly overused phrase, it simply was good to be alive.

Suddenly, high in the absurdly decorative rocks, a burst of birds emerged in a perfect cone, as if sprayed from a can, flapping and frantic. The marvels of their avionics were apparent in how they maintained perfect separation despite proximity. I could have been looking at the ceiling of the Sistine, so perfect were the flights and wheeling of the birds against the marine blue of the sky.

Numerous studies have demonstrated – in that hard, scientific way that involves technology, endless data and body chemistry – that simply being in the wild, seeing wild creatures, being mis en scène with trees and wild things, is simply good for you. Blood chemistry has shown that being out from behind the desk, the lathe, the check out, the stock reports, the dishwasher and bassinet, and in general out of the cities, is as good for you – and probably better than – a diet, an expensive gym subscription, loads of antibiotics or painkillers or – for that matter – consuming animal horns or dicks.

Rounding a corner we see a family receiving a treat. A red fox is standing rock-still; watching them as the family, with cartoon-like dropped jaws, watch him.  As we pass, they are carefully reaching for cameras. Pixels are believing.

On the plains in a poppy- and broom-studded meadow, with its Impressionist red, yellow and brilliant green daubs, a movement. A deer, head erect, tossing slightly, her eyes wide, as she startles and turns, her white tufted tail jouncing until it disappears into a nearby copse. I feel as if I have been given a tiny shot of amphetamine.

So we move from external nature to internal biochemistry. We city dwellers, after a day lingering in the wild, will have adrenaline and nor-adrenalin pumping like engine oil through our systems, endorphins kicking in to secure the joy, delight and lightness. We are all an inadvertent control group for the science of wilding.

In short, the wild and all it contains – the plants and animals; the wide perspective fresh to those hemmed in by walls; the mere fact that it’s wild and unpredictable, with the frisson of danger mixed with beauty – can be likened to a global national health system ... if that’s not too much of an overblown simile.

That is why animals really are of medicinal use when they’re alive and not dead. While a tiger’s penis in a bottle of booze is only believed to be a potent medicine for the person drinking it, seeing a tiger in the wild really is medicinal to any who see it.

 A rumour that rhino horn had cured a man of cancer in Vietnam apparently caused an upsurge in the number of rhinos being blown away. Now these bad-tempered animals with their lousy eyesight that palaeontologists have shown roamed northern Spain two million years ago, are facing extinction.

 At the same time, medical evidence confirms that a plant cultivated since 150 BC, moringa olifeira, has been scientifically proven to be curative for a wide range of conditions, and particularly the liver cancers that plague Asia – and no animal dies.

But killing an animal is its own release that picking leaves is not. A friend in Mali writes that the UN peacekeepers wish for war, for a wave of jihadists to crash over the walls. It is this love of the power, of the kill, that may support this trade as much as the money and myths.

Wilderness and empty spaces; live elephants, rhinos, wolves, trees, creepers, soaring birds, deer, boars and snakes: these are all part of the living spiritual, psychological and bodily pharmacopeia that is the global commons. But at the extremes of capitalist privatisation are powerful groups that can hire chopper crews with night-vision goggles and military-grade automatic weapons, primed to fire from the skies on hapless beasts whose hides, horns tusks, bile and penises feed only the egos of inadequate men. A computer game with real blood and groans. Real death.

Can logic defeat greed and superstition? Perhaps the Cartesian maxim should be rephrased: “I kill, therefore I am.”


Melody Kemp
Last blog date: Oct 10th, 2015


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