Remains of simple dwellings carved out of piles of mammoth tusks bear testimony to the fact that man had found use for ivory in the pre-historic times. And, very soon by the beginning of civilization, ivory had found popularity as a medium for the expression of art and crafts. In the Indus Valley Civilization ivory combs, scales and seals have been found.
However, the demand for ivory rose sharply in the late 19th and 20th century, as artifacts made of ivory came to be associated as symbols of luxury and status. Ranging from mundane things like the hanko seals of Japan, billiard balls and piano keys and more fascinating products like the silver and ivory mat on display in the Bangladesh National Museum, made for a Nawab of Dhaka, ivory has been coveted for its beauty, ability to be finely carved, and rarity and has become a metaphor for purity, grace and finesse.
All about Ivory
Elephant ivory is regarded as "true" ivory. Organic ivory is derived from walrus tusks, hippopotamus and sperm whale teeth, and horn of the hornbill, while vegetable ivory is derived from the seed of the South American nut palm. Animal ivory has similar chemical composition to bone and antler, and comprises a collagen matrix with a mineral component. However, unlike bone, ivory has no blood vessel system, and is therefore denser.
Synthetic ivory has lately come into use as an excellent substitute for ivory. Celluloid and casein are most commonly used substances for “faux ivory”. Invented by Alexander Parkes in 1865, celluloid ivory is also referred to as French Ivory, Ivoride, Genuine French Ivory, Ivorine, etc. In good imitations both the grain pattern and texture of real ivory is successfully copied so much so that, chemical tests are required to tell real ivory and the fakes apart.
Some useful information
Ivory can be of a hardened or softer variety, and the softer type of ivory will be less liable to crack due to the moisture held within it. It will be less brittle, and much easier to actually create and design due to the moisture inside the tusk. With the killing of elephants long being banned internationally for the last several decades now, it is the mammoth ivory that beautifully intricate items of ivory are designed and although it is a more brittle and dry ivory, mammoth ivory items are more historically significant due to the age of the ivory itself.
Ivory and elephant conservation
"Curiously symbolizing profligate luxury as well as purity, ivory has for uncounted millennia been procured from vast distances and masterfully carved into objects of rare beauty. Since elephant tusks are its chief source, and since Man is the elephant's only serious predator, ivory is at the root of the African elephant's threatened extinction..." (Robert McCormick Adams, "Smithosian Horizons," Smithsonian 19(12):14, 1989)
Poaching of elephants for ivory is the dirty flip side of all the romance and beauty associated with ivory art. African elephants have been facing greater decimation for ivory, as unlike their Asian counterparts where only males possess tusks, both the male and female African elephants have tusks. No one knows for sure, but it has been estimated that there were about 1.2 million African elephants in the late 1970s, but probably fewer than 500,000 remain today. Extraction of ivory does not end at merely killing an elephant, which in itself is a terrible deed; the process thereafter is more macabre. Regardless of the mode in which the elephants are killed, the hunter and poacher cuts open the head of the dead elephant, as approximately 25 per cent of the ivory is contained in the head to leave behind a mutilated corpse. Discussing this process might appear avoidable to our sensibilities, but unless awareness is spread, it might be difficult to drive home the enormous horror of the method.
In order to protect the elephant, national parks and reserves have been established to reduce the threat from hunters and poachers. And a number of national and international legislations and treaties have come into force to save the elephant. Asian and African elephants are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, an international treaty with over 160 member nations. CITES prohibits all commercial trade in Appendix I species. However, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia, are the three nations who have been permitted very limited commercial trade, possibly for the reason that they were reporting a steady increase in the elephant population, which was not showing any signs of being endangered.
Before the ban on African ivory trade in 1990, ivory exports from Africa averaged 670 metric tons annually. This is equivalent to about 75,000 elephants, a number impossible to be replaced by natural procreation of elephants. Hong Kong and Japan were the largest importers of ivory from Africa, accounting for about 75 percent of total imports. The United States imported far more worked ivory products than raw ivory in the 1980s. Because of the ban, thankfully the U.S. and European legitimate markets for ivory have been virtually shut down, and prices have fallen in other world markets, including Japan, India, and Africa. But on the other hand there has been an increasing trend in illegal trade of ivory. Unregulated, domestic ivory markets in many parts of Africa and Asia remain a serious and challenging problem for long-term elephant conservation. International conservation efforts now focus on controlling ivory stockpiles, establishing and strengthening the borders of protected areas, preventing poaching, and carefully managing elephants to avoid increased conflict with human populations. In a recent development, on June 14, 2007, African nations agreed on a massive ivory sell-off and a nine-year moratorium on further sales. The arrangement permits South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe to empty government inventories in a single sale to Japan. Japan has guaranteed not to re-export the raw ivory. Revenues from the sale would be earmarked for conservation programs.