Numlock Sunday: Dina Fine Maron on the giant clams threatened by the ivory trade

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

Just a programming note, we’re off tomorrow for the federal holiday, I forgot to mention that Friday.

This week, I spoke to Dina Fine Maron who wrote “Criminals are stealing giant clams—and carving them like ivory. Here's why.” for National Geographic. Here's what I wrote about it:

Authorities in the Philippines have seized 133,000 tons of giant clamshells since 2016, most of which came from a single raid in October 2019. Giant clams are getting rarer and rarer, and despite protections for the magnificent mollusks across Oceania they fetch high prices in China where they’re fashioned into the kind of things ivory was once used for. China banned elephant ivory in 2017, which is great, don’t get me wrong, but demand has shifted to materials that look like ivory of which clams do the trick. There’s also evidence that giant clamshells and elephant ivory are being trafficked together, with a fifth of giant clamshell seizures in China also including some ivory.

I love Wildlife Watch, Dina’s team at National Geographic, and their coverage of the crimes related to animals. This story about the diversification of the ivory trade and the creatures other than elephants that are now threatened by demand for ivory.

We spoke about this latest story as well as a story she wrote back over the summer, all about dolphin therapy and how they’re oftentimes oversold to desperate families.

Dina Fine Maron can be found at Wildlife Watch at National Geographic and on Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dina, you wrote a really fascinating story all about the trade in giant clam shells. What's going on?

Yeah, it's something a lot of people aren't familiar with, right? Giant clams are these massive mollusks. They weigh as much as 500 pounds and they look like ivory when they're carved. People for years now, starting actually decades ago, they were collected for the international aquarium trade and for luxury meat. But more recently they're being collected for carving.

The Wildlife Justice Commission, which is a Hague-based group that investigates organized crime, they put out a new report that talks about this huge growth in the trade. There's some speculation that because China had an elephant ivory ban that went into effect in 2017, that might have upped the interest in using things like giant clam to fill that same cultural niche, to carve ivory into things like jewelry and statues.

You wrote about a couple different countries cracking down, one was the Philippines that had a really massive crackdown, like a scale that I was having trouble wrapping my head around. China's has been having crackdowns, but that they've also been kind of finding some ivory with that too. What's been going on?

In China, there have been about 46 seizures that are publicly known in the last five or so years. And about a fifth of those, when authorities found the giant clam stashes, they also found that there was ivory with them or ivory-like substances, meaning things that are carved also to look like ivory. Those include narwhal tusks, mammoth ivory tusks — that's mammoth ivory that is made from the tusk — and helmeted horn bill casques, which are a growth that's on this kind of really cool looking bird that you should look up if you haven't seen a picture of it yet.

I will definitely do that. What happened with that Philippines bust, that seems huge?

Yeah, so there was one gigantic bust in Southern Philippines in October 2019, that had 132,000-tons stockpile. It's kind of hard to wrap your mind around. I talked about it in the story, that it's five times the weight of the Statue of Liberty, if you can imagine that. Since then, there have been other seizures as well, that collectively, this year alone, there have been six seizures and that's almost as many as during the previous five years combined. All those seizures in total are 133,000 tons of clam.

Whenever folks kind of see these stories and, again, you folks at Wildlife Watch do such a really terrific job of highlighting them, a question that I'll oftentimes hear is like, well, what can we do about it?

Yeah. Well, first thing of course is awareness when some of the stuff is sold online. So, please don't purchase any. Sometimes it's sold under code names. It might be called something like jade-like shell or other products that look like ivory for the most part, try not to buy them because they could be elephant ivory. They could be giant clam shell ivory, which is illegal, could be mammoth ivory, which in some cases is illegal. Really you just have to be a careful smart consumer.

The other way, of course, I'd say is just raising awareness. You can, if you choose to do so, donate money to groups that are trying to combat this kind of crime or raise awareness about this crime and just telling your friends or your family over dinner about this weird article that you read, or this weird phenomenon that you heard of helps raise awareness. And that in turn can arguably put pressure on countries to crack down on this type of crime.

It's been a minute since you last came on for a Sunday, but you had a really fantastic story earlier this summer all about dolphin therapy. That one really blew my mind in a way of just like, here's the thing that I had thought was actually a real phenomenon, but that you've kind of found is a little bit more complex than typical. Do you want to talk a little bit about that story?

Thanks for reading that one as well. That was a story about the rise in dolphin therapy and what that is. That's when people think that spending time in the water with dolphins will heal them for various maladies. In the last 50 years, when people have been doing this, no research has found any significant therapeutic effects from this idea, but, nonetheless, there are programs around the world now that offer sessions and they claim to treat everything from autism to depression to stroke. There are even paid certification programs now for people who are training in this industry. In all these cases, the idea is you pay, let's say $5,000 or a few thousand dollars, and you spend an hour or two a day in the water with these dolphins or nearby the dolphins or petting the dolphins.

And that they're supposed to have qualities that will treat you in some capacity. Now exactly how that would theoretically work also remains murky. Some people think, well, they have echolocation capabilities and maybe the ultrasound pulses from their clicks will somehow alter human tissue cells or brainwaves. There's no science behind that.


Another idea that dolphins could communicate with people who've had trouble communicating with others. There's no evidence to back that either. Primarily there's been a lot of interest for some families who have children who have autism and their children have not been verbal. The hope is maybe the dolphin can bring my child to say his or her first words. Of course, it's heartbreaking when that doesn't work out. As for the science, there's been several meta-analyses — meaning studies that look at all the other studies — to see if there's any good evidence there.

They say, well, even if there were any therapeutic benefit by spending time with dolphins, you can't really tease apart if it was just because of the novel stimuli. You know, it was cool, you were in the water, you saw a new animal, you were on this different type of trip with your family. There are all those other factors at play here. And there have been no good comparative studies that look at the gold standard type of science that we talk about, where you're randomized to have one exposure versus another exposure and there's some blinding, so the families don't know exactly what they're getting.

For example, studies that might compare exposure to a animatronic dolphin versus a real dolphin. There haven't been good studies like that. My story really focused on this one family with this child who had been in a car accident and had severe maladies following that, and the family desperate for assistance finally turned to dolphin therapy and brought their kid to The Bahamas to see if it could help. They believed that there were some things that were better after the sessions, but I leave it to the reader to decide about the difficulties between what this industry represents and what it's doing to families.

Yeah. It really stuck with me just because it was not only a story about, again, how animals are treated and how these dolphins, which are fairly intelligent creatures, are caged. But also it was of a story about desperate people who could be being manipulated by others trying to get $5,000 out of them for a couple swimming lessons.

What I was really struck by in this story, as well, is that it wasn't as black and white as "these people are to be blunt evil and trying to take advantage of families." In several cases, the institutions that had started these facilities, they too had a kid who they weren't able to find traditional medical approaches to help their child. And so they turned to dolphin therapy themselves and they felt it helped their own family, and that led them to start these kind of facilities. Therefore, you're seeing that there's a lot of desperation and hope on each side. What's interesting is that these facilities, some of them freely admit, oh, there's no science behind this, there's nothing to say that this is definitely working, but never say never, and we saw this tremendous thing with one child or with our child and therefore, maybe it could happen for your child too.

And it's that strand of hope that brings people in for these facilities. But what's so tough is, as you pointed out, dolphins are incredibly intelligent creatures. They are living in captivity here or they're becoming dependent on being fed by these types of facilities. And people are laboring under these misconceptions in some cases that the dolphin is free when, in fact, they are not.

For example, this facility in The Bahamas, the dolphins, people that have gone there have told me, oh, well, the dolphins are free to leave if they choose, they open a gate once a day and the dolphins can swim out. But almost every dolphin at that facility is captive-born. And because it's lived in captivity its whole life, it wouldn't be able to survive and adapt if it did swim out, and most of them choose not to swim out or maybe none of them swim out. And therefore, that's a misconception that the clientele are laboring under.

It's so interesting because the motivations aren't as black and white. It's very easy to approach this kind of story of, ah, they're faking it and we can prove that they're faking it. But it seems like far more gray and one thing that I really love about your coverage over at Wildlife Watch is just how it is very willing to look at those moral grays in what goes on in humanity's relationship with animals.

Thank you.

Thank you so much for coming on. Have you got any cool stuff coming up soon? You've had a really banner year so far.

Yeah! Right now I'm most closely following a case right now playing through the US Department of Agriculture system. This is about the nation's only known facility that raises chinchillas for medical research, and they are in court right now because they have more than a hundred animal welfare violations. Really gripping stuff about terrible conditions that USDA inspectors have discovered at this facility. If this facility is shuttered, that raises interesting questions about what would happen for chinchilla research going forward. Chinchillas have hearing more like humans than any other rodents. They can hear at low frequencies like we do, whereas mice hear at higher frequencies. So, without this facility, all the hearing research that's being done on chinchillas right now, it's not really clear what would happen if someone else would move into this market perhaps, or if this would sort of pace in the end of research in chinchillas at least in the United States.

I wrote about it when the trial started in July, and the trial is supposed to actually wrap up this week. So, tune in to Wildlife Watch and you'll hopefully have more answers.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

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