Ivory, derived from elephant tusks, is the leading cause for the poaching of these animals. Ivory products, desired over centuries, need to be banned in order for elephants to survive

Since the time of ancient civilizations, ivory has been an object of great desire. Ornaments and carvings have been fashioned out of ivory for centuries, with the earliest ivory items dating back to 20,000 years ago. There is even evidence of the use of hippopotamus ivory in dentures in ancient Rome.

A dense, white material, ivory comes from the tusks and teeth of animals such as the elephant, walrus, hippopotamus, pig and sperm whale. Among these, elephants have been hunted the most as their tusks are made up of ivory. In 2012 alone, 35,000 African elephants were poached for their tusks. The elephant’s ancestor, the mammoth, was also prized for its giant tusks with parcels of Siberian mammoth ivory weighing 10 to 20 tonnes being common in the ivory markets of the 1890s.

Consisting of dentine, a tissue that is similar to bone, ivory is fibrous and easy to carve. It is also a durable material — if not exposed to high temperatures or humidity. Its durability and ability to survive over time makes ivory a coveted item that has driven its sales in the black market, causing the death of over 60 per cent of forest elephants in the last decade.

Today ivory is mostly extracted from elephants in African and Asia. The ivory extracted from elephants in West Africa has been found to be harder, while ivory from East African elephants is softer, more white and easier to carve. The tusks of an African elephant are on an average 6.6ft in length and weigh about 23 kg. Tusks from the Asian elephant or Elephas Maximus are comparatively smaller, usually five feet in length and 16 kg in weight. The demand for ivory, both legal and on the black market is the single greatest threat to African elephants. In India, even though the elephant is venerated and is seen as a symbol of friendship, it is hunted for its tusks. While habitat loss and train accidents are seen as threats in India, poaching remains the major cause of death of wild elephants. The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), recorded the loss of over 121 elephants due to poaching between 2008 and 2011. During the period, WPSI records show 781 kg of ivory, 69 tusks, 99 pieces of ivory carvings and 75 ivory bangles were seized from across the country.

The Ban

The international trade in elephant ivory has been banned since 1989. The ban was approved by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) that also allowed two legal sales of ivory in 1999 and 2008. Despite these efforts large quantities of ivory continue to move illegally from Africa to Asia, which has emerged as the largest market for ivory. Since January 2011, more than 30 tonnes of ivory in large consignments have been seized. This number represents the poaching of over 3,000 elephants. A market for ivory flourishes in China and Japan and is the driving force of the global illegal ivory trade as well as the poaching that constitutes it. Other south east Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand are also believed to contribute significantly to the illegal ivory trade, either as countries providing transit or providing easy entry of ivory into a so-called ‘legal’ market by way of loopholes.

The reality today is that the level of poaching and illegal trade in ivory is spiralling out of control. The price of ivory on the black market remains high as does its demand in south east Asian markets. In July 2012, CITES recognised that elephant poaching had reached 'unsustainable' levels, not only in small unprotected populations but also among larger populations traditionally regarded as safe.

In art

Over the centuries ivory has been used to make ornate artefacts, intricate carvings, weapons, religious and personal items, decorative boxes and handles. Early Romans and Greeks used ivory to make the white of the eyes of statues. The demand for ivory remained high through the Classical period for use in works of art.

The Chinese have valued ivory for both utilitarian and artistic purposes for long.

As early as the First Century BC, the Chinese moved ivory along the Northern Silk Route to cater to the demand that was growing in the west. Ivory soon became an expression of exotic wealth as piano keys, billiard balls and smoking pipes were made out of it.

As a result throughout the colonisation of Africa, tonnes of ivory were removed and slaves were used to carry the prized raw material that often weighed more than 25 kg.

Steps to be taken

A return on the complete ban on ivory is imperative as sanctioned sales of the raw material continue to put elephants at risk. The international criminal syndicate involved must be dealt with strongly with tough laws that destroy the supply-demand chain for ivory.

But the immediate need of the hour is to educate friends and family on ivory. Many believe that ivory falls out naturally like teeth. People must be made aware of the poaching and barbaric extraction of ivory from dead elephants. Discourage your friends from using items made of ivory such as combs, jewellery and artefacts. Tell them that such objects are not to be valued as it comes at the cost of an innocent life.

On screen

Actor Jackie Chan is one of our favourite action heroes, whose comic timing is impeccable. The actor, a resident of Hong Kong, is now helping to campaign against ivory hunting by supporting a documentary, “Gambling on Extinction” that examines the killing of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns. A Canadian and German production, “Gambling on Extinction” follows the filmmaker Jakob Kneser journey across Africa and South East Asia as he examines the illegal trade of wildlife products. If you’re a fan of Jackie Chan, it’s time you for you to watch “Gambling on Extinction”.

Did you know

Elephants are delightful creatures blessed with great memories. They also have strong familial instincts and like to stick together in herds. The Jungle Book has a great account of Colonel Hathi and his herd who maintain military discipline.

Lord Ganesha, the elephant God, is a favourite god of many Indians. Did you know that one of his tusks is broken? According to myth, Vyasa was dictating the Mahabharata to Ganesha, who had agreed to be his scribe. When Ganesha ran out of ink in his feather pen, he broke off one of his tusks and dipped it in ink to continue writing.