How a Love of Ivory Is Killing Elephants

A herd of elephants on the move in arid Tsavo East National Park, Kenya
A herd of elephants on the move in arid Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. Nigel Pavitt / AWL Images / Getty Images

Ivory is the natural raw material that makes up mammal tusks and teeth. Traditionally, the term only refers to elephant tusks, but the chemical structure of teeth and tusks of mammals such as hippos, warthogs, and whales is identical to that of elephants, and so "ivory" can refer to any mammal's tooth or tusk that is large enough to be sculpted or scrimshawed.  

Key Takeaways

  • Ivory is a natural substance formed in the teeth and tusks of mammals.
  • It has been carved and used as decorative objects for 40,000 years or more.
  • Modern trade in ivory has pushed the cost up over $1,000 per kilogram.
  • Ivory demand has devastated elephant populations around the world.

Elephant and ivory tusk comes from the two modified incisors of living and extinct members of the Proboscidea family: Asian and African elephants and extinct mammoth from Alaska and Siberia (where preservation is possible). Other mammals with large enough teeth to be carvable include marine mammals like narwhals, walruses, and sperm and killer whales, as well as their evolutionary relatives, warthogs and hippopotami. 

Elephant Ivory

African elephants are the two species of elephants in the genus Loxodonta, one of the two existing genera in Elephantidae. Poaching significantly reduced the population of Loxodonta in certain regions during the 20th century.
Close up of African savanna elephant ((Loxodonta africana) tusks. Martin Harvey / Gallo Images / Getty Images

Elephant tusks are extremely large teeth which project out beyond the lips. Tusks are made up of a root and the tusk itself, and they have the same physical structures that teeth do: pulp cavity, dentine, cementum, and enamel. Elephant enamel wears off when the elephant is still quite young, and the main component of tusks (about 95 percent) is dentine, a mineralized connective tissue. 

The elephant uses the tusks for defense and offense, for digging access to waterholes, lifting objects, gathering food, stripping bark, and protecting their trunks. Elephant tusks can grow up to 12 feet (3.5 meters) in length. Baby elephants have a deciduous precursor that they lose before the permanent tooth grows in. The size and shape of a tusk are related to the animal's diet, and, barring trauma, tusks grow throughout the animal's life. Like human teeth, the tusk carries a stable isotope record of the animal's birthplace, diet, growth, behavior, and life history. 

What is Ivory Used For? 

Lion Figurine from Vogelherd Cave
Lion sculpture in the world-famous Vogelherd-cave near Heidenheim; location: Vogelherdhöhle near Stetten, Heidenheim, Germany; age: ca 33.000 years; era: Paleolithic; material: mammoth ivory; size: 9,2 cm;. Walter Geiersperger / Getty Images

Mammoth ivory is among the oldest material used for making decorative objects and tools, with its first use documented 40,000 years ago during the European Upper Paleolithic. It is highly prized because it warms to the touch, varies in color from white to yellow, is easily carved and etched, and has an odd visual effect known as Schreger lines or angles, a unique pattern of cross-hatching that is in reality rows of microscopic tubes. 

Tooth and tusk ivories have been carved into a nearly infinite number of shapes and objects: small statuary and button-like netsukes, flatware handles and furniture inlay, piano keys, combs, gaming pieces, and plaques. When a tusk is carved but still retains its overall form, that's called a scrimshaw, which was a traditional pastime of sailors on long-term voyages. 

The Price of Ivory

In 2014, the wholesale price for ivory was $2,100 per kilogram, but by 2017 it had fallen to $730, largely because of a new Chinese ban. The other cost of ivory is in elephants. Over the past decades, thousands of elephants have been ruthlessly slaughtered, to the point that both Asian and African elephants are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Estimates for the elephant population in the world at the end of the 19th century were in the millions. According to the last Great Elephant Census taken in 2015, there were 352,271 African savanna elephants living in 18 different countries, down 30 percent since 2007. Those numbers account for about 93 percent of all the savanna elephants in the world. The current rate of elephant population decline is 8 percent per year or about ∼40,000 elephants. The tusks from a single elephant could be worth more than US $100,000. 

Cost of Poaching

MIKUMI, TANZANIA- JULY 1989: Park Rangers, who earn 70 US dollars per month with a confiscated elephant ivory tusk worth 2,700 US dollars, at Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. The rangers stand beside the remains of a bull elephant killed by poachers.
Park Rangers at Mikumi National Park in Tanzania stand beside a bull elephant killed by poachers. Tom Stoddart / Getty Images

The reason the price per kilogram of ivory dropped so steeply is in part because China ended its legal trade in ivory on December 31, 2017. Before the ban, the country had many state-licensed ivory carving factories and retail shops: evidence indicates that legal trade has ceased. However, illicit trade continues, and specific country-sanctioned legal trade continues in other places. In the fall of 2018, evidence of continued poaching of elephants was found in several parts of Africa. 

Elephant poaching is conducted by helicopters, military grade weaponry, and poisoned pumpkins; dozens of wildlife rangers have been killed trying to protect the animals. Tusks are gathered from the killed elephants and exported illegally by African gangs and corrupt officials. 

What Can You Do to Help? 

A stack of ivory and ivory sculptures are displayed before the first public ivory crush in Romes ancient Circus Maximus on March 31, 2016 in Rome, Italy.
Many organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services hold regular crushes, where confiscated ivory objects are destroyed to remove them from the market. Ivory Crush in Rome, Italy 2015. Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty Images

The first thing you can do is not buy ivory. Although antique ivory (older than 1947) is legal to purchase, buying it still increases the market for fake antiques made on the tusks of newly killed animals, so at the least, make sure what you're buying is indeed antique. Better not to buy it at all. 

There are several good charities, like the World Wildlife Foundation, Save the Elephants (African Wildlife Foundation), and the Elephant Sanctuary, which are effectively moving to protect elephants and pushing states to ban and criminalize ivory manufacture and trade. You could join them and donate money or volunteer labor, you could campaign and lobby for the elephants, you could help raise funds and sponsor the care of the animals. 

The British newspaper "The Guardian" has an extensive list of ways you can get involved, called "What can I do to help elephants?"

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