May 24, 2010

For the Love of Zebras.

Mikumi National Park is home to many zebras, although I was not fortunate enough to see one from my bus window on my recent happenstance "safari" through Mikumi. I think zebras are phenomenally striking animals and I have long been obsessed with the use of zebra print in interior design schemes. In fact, soon after moving here I purchased a large zebra-print pot (note emphasis on the word large - much to Andrei's chagrin, the thing weighs approximately 50 pounds and was quite a nightmare to get into our second floor apartment) and filled it with a lucious, green plant that really flourished once we introduced it into our home (this seemed to make up for Andrei suffering back pain from the move into our apartment, well only sort of...).
In her book, Its Our Turn to Eat, Michela Wrong included a brief passage about the lack of innovation and inspiration in interior design schemes throughout former British colonies of East Africa. She writes, "There’s a certain sameness about presidential lodgings in Britain’s former African colonies, and Nairobi’s State House, the former colonial governor’s residence, is no exception. Fall asleep in the waiting room and on waking you could, in that bleary moment of confusion, think yourself in State House, Zambia; State House, Tanzania; or State House Uganda. Behind the white-pillared porticoes they present to the world, these buildings are resolutely dowdy, content to remain stubbornly out of touch with modern trends in interior design. No stark minimalism here, no streamlined vistas, no clever games with reflection and light. The d├ęcor is dark wood paneling, chintz sofas, red carpets and thick velvet drapes. The taste in pictures will usually be execrable: an anaemic watercolor of an English country scene, an uplifting motto urging the reader on to greater Christian efforts, an oil portrait of the incumbent so approximate it could have been sat for by someone else entirely. The carpet will be worn through in places, a clumsily carved piece of animal Africana will take up a great deal of space. The overall impression is of a dusty members’ club crossed with a gloomy British country pub, and the effect is to make those indoors pine for the fresh green of the formal gardens outside, the only real area of beauty."

This passage got me thinking, why does Tanzanian decor error on the side of drab and chintzy, even in what should otherwise be regal settings or even among those of great wealth, when there are so many sources of natural inspiration around? For example, sometimes a little zebra print can make a big impact in a room.

But after obsessing over so many pictures of zebra inspired design, the real question that started to nag me is should I feel guilty about my love of zebra skin rugs and other interior elements - is the use of zebra skin really a practice to be condoning? I tried to get to the bottom of this question. Here is what I was able to find out. If you ever find yourself in the market for a zebra skin rug, you might want to consider the following.

There are three species of zebra in the world, the Burchell, Grevy, and Hartman. Of these three zebra species in existence, only the Burchell’s Zebra is not endangered. The Burchell's Zebra is essentially Africa's version of the horse, distinguished by its black and white color patterning. The practice of "culling" zebras, among many other wild animals in Africa, is legally sanctioned when fears of overpopulation exist. When culling is practiced (needless to say culling is not practiced against endangered species), Zebras aren’t killed just for the purpose of selling their skins, rather their skins are made into rugs to avoid waste.

Within the U.S. as with most countries around the world, it is legal to sell, buy, and possess Burchell's Zebra species' hides, or the skin of the animal once tanned. Rugs from these non-endangered zebra species are allowed to be legally imported into the U.S. only once the merchant has provided all necessary paperwork and documentation, including the so called "Trophy Export Certificate," the document proving the skin purchased has been legally obtained from the country of origin, as well as the "Veterinary Health Certificate," certifying that your zebra skin is indeed disease-free and in compliance with the international zoo sanitary code. Both of these documents should be provided by the vendor at the time of transaction, if your vendor is not able or willing to supply these documents, you best seek another vendor.

But given that the source of most of this information was through the rug dealers themselves, I decided to dig a little bit deeper, especially given the prolific appearances of zebra skin rugs in home design blogs and magazines. I was still left wondering, is all of this really as kosher as it sounds? A couple of friends here who work with a reputable international organization dealing with conversation issues helped fill in the gaps.

Here in Tanzania, wild life hunting is legally sanctioned, of course not inside national parks, but rather in game reserves. It turns out, sometimes game reserves can be safer havens for the animals because hunting is more regulated and also the money generated by hunting affords more patrols to keep poachers out (the price tag to come in and shoot a wild animal is steep beyond imagination - upwards of $30,000). There are official hunting seasons in Tanzania and you can only shoot male species.

Despite formal and high level regulations around hunting, poaching and illegal hunting pratices are a real concern. For example, just recently, I learned of a large illegal shipment of elephant tusks discovered by customs officials in Vietnam originating in Kenya destined for China. This incident continues to be investigated by Kenyan wildlife officials to determine in the shipment originated in Kenya or just passed through there in transit from another country, say perhaps its neighbor, Tanzania. But conservationists report that elephant poaching in East Africa has been in the rise in recent years, and is in part driven by a high level of demand for ivory in Asia, which must be traded on the black market since international ivory trade was banned in 1989. Yet, illegally traded ivory continues to fetch a high price of about $20 per kilogram, making poaching a highly sought-after job among rural poor in East Africa.  There have long existed tensions between Kenya and Tanzania around conservation issues. Only recently, Tanzania lobbied the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species to allow a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory, promising to use the profits to boost wildlife conservation but their request was turned down and some parliament members in Dar-es-Salaam angrily accused Kenya of spreading negative information that helped sabotage Tanzania's efforts.  

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References and Photo Credit:

Photo 1: http://www.jameswarwick.co.uk/do/ecco/view_item?listid=2&listcatid=17&listitemid=594

http://www.realzebraskinrug.com/tag/area-rug/

http://www.traffic.org/

http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Kenya-Authorities-Probing-Illegal-Shipments-of-Elephant-Tusks-93320464.html

Please note: I lost the file where I had saved the references for the above home design pictures containing zebra print interior design elements, if anyone can help me locate the source of these pictures, it would be greatly appreciated.

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