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The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 18, May 4, 2008, Article 20

IN SOLOMON ISLANDS, DOLPHIN TEETH MONEY FAVORED OVER DOLLARS

[On Wednesday April 30, the Wall Street Journal published
a front-page article about the resurgence of traditional
dolphin teeth money on the Solomon Islands. -Editor]

Forget the euro and the yen. In this South Pacific archipelago,
people are pouring their savings into another appreciating
currency: dolphin teeth.

Shaped like miniature ivory jalapeņos, the teeth of spinner
dolphins have facilitated commerce in parts of the Solomon
Islands for centuries. This traditional currency is gaining
in prominence now after years of ethnic strife that have
undermined the country's economy and rekindled attachment
to ancient customs.

Over the past year, one spinner tooth has soared in price
to about two Solomon Islands dollars (26 U.S. cents), from
as little as 50 Solomon Islands cents. The official currency,
pegged to a global currency basket dominated by the U.S.
dollar, has remained relatively stable in the period.

Even Rick Houenipwela, the governor of the Central Bank
of the Solomon Islands, says he is an investor in teeth,
having purchased a "huge amount" a few years ago. "Dolphin
teeth are like gold," Mr. Houenipwela says. "You keep them
as a store of wealth -- just as if you'd put money in a bank."

Few Solomon Islanders share Western humane sensibilities
about the dolphins. Hundreds of animals are killed at a time
in regular hunts, usually off the large island of Malaita.
Dolphin flesh provides protein for the villagers. The teeth
are used like cash to buy local produce. Fifty teeth will
purchase a pig; a handful are enough for some yams and cassava.

The rising value of dolphin teeth, Mr. Houenipwela says, is
explained in part by the need to heal the wounds of the
country's ethnic conflict. According to local custom, tribal
disputes over lost lives or property can often be settled
by paying compensation -- in teeth rather than dollars.

Another reason, Mr. Houenipwela says, is the rapidly growing
population of young men who need dolphin teeth for buying
brides -- the biggest financial transaction in many Malaita
islanders' lives. Teeth are the currency of choice for this
payment: one healthy bride costs at least 1,000 teeth. That
necessitates the killing of dozens of dolphins. Local spinner
dolphins yield more than 20 teeth, each about an inch long.

While originally restricted to Malaita, the tooth frenzy
has spread all over this former British protectorate of
500,000 people, Mr. Houenipwela says.

As the demand for dolphin teeth has increased, the supply
can't keep up, he laments: "People want more teeth, and
it's not that easy to get dolphins. It's a very tiring job."

The tradition has deep roots. Dolphin teeth and other animal
products were used as currency in the Solomon Islands and
other parts of Melanesia long before European colonizers
arrived here in the late 19th century.

An exhibit of traditional money in the central bank's lobby
displays the now-worthless garlands of dog teeth. Curled pig
tusks have played a similar role in the neighboring nation
of Vanuatu and parts of Papua New Guinea. Whale, rather than
dolphin, teeth were collected in Fiji. While the use of these
traditional currencies is dying off elsewhere in the region,
there is no sign of the boom in dolphin teeth abating here.
Mr. Houenipwela, the central bank governor, says that some
entrepreneurs have recently asked him for permission to
establish a bank that would take deposits in teeth.

To read the complete article (subscription required), see:
Full Story

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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