Numerous attempts have been made to stamp out the trade in stolen artefacts, and a number of prominent curators and dealers have recently been prosecuted for handling stolen goods. But still the market for looted antiquities expands, fed by a growing demand from the Middle East, Japan and China. Where once a rich man might adorn his palace with tiger skins and the heads of rare rhino, collectors now bag shards of Sumerian pottery and Buddhist carvings, trophy art to demonstrate wealth and sophistication.
The comparison between big game hunting and the hunt for smuggled artefacts is apt, for archaeologists 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.
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