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what is ivory and how can we protect elephants?
What first comes to mind when you think of elephants? Is it their big ears or long trunks? Or maybe it’s their iconic tusks that give them a great sense of majesty and strength. Unlike antlers that are shed annually, tusks evolved from incisor teeth that continually grow over the course of the animal’s lifetime. These tusks are made out of ivory, a cream-colored dense bone tissue that surrounds enamel. Elephants use tusks to dig for roots and water, strip bark off of trees, fight other elephants to determine dominance, and protect themselves against predators. Devastatingly, an elephant’s tusks are also what make them a target for poachers on the hunt for ivory. Why is ivory so valuable and how can we prevent the senseless killing of elephants driven by the ivory trade? Here are the fast facts....
Elephants are most known for their ivory, but other animals like the walrus, hippopotamus, narwhal, sperm whale and warthog also have tusks or teeth that are made up of a similar chemical structure. The word ivory is used to identify any mammalian tooth or tusk that is of commercial interest.
No, rhino horns are made of keratin—the same substance found in human hair and nails. Although they are not ivory, rhinos are still poached for their horns.
Elephants are usually killed before the removal of their tusks, but sometimes they don't die immediately. Imagine if a dentist removed your canine tooth without any numbing medication....it would hurt, a lot. Elephants feel an immense amount of pain if someone cuts off their tusks. Tusks are deeply rooted incisors with nerve endings. When severed, those nerve endings are exposed and can easily become infected, leading to death.
Across the world, ivory is viewed as a status symbol. Historically, it was used to produce ornaments, figurines, and small carvings, as well as items like jewelry, piano keys, and chess sets. Traditional medicine also views ivory as a healing element, using ivory powder to create medicine for a variety of illnesses. In the first decade of the 21st century, there was evidence of demand for ivory as an inflation-proof investment commodity, though recent trading restrictions, especially in China, seem to have reduced this pressure.
The international sale of ivory was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangers Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989, but domestic trade still remained legal in many countries. In the last decade, we’ve the seen the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Singapore, and a handful of other countries pass stricter laws on ivory trade. However, prescribed conditions such as in EU regulations for antique ivory (pre-1947), pre-convention worked ivory (acquired before the date on which CITES or the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations became applicable) and raw ivory, are complicating the matter. New ivory is also being illegally sold under this exemption, making the issue even more complex. Any trade in ivory, even where legal, causes consumer and enforcement confusion, and provides a cover for the laundering of illegally sourced ivory.
Although this creative idea may seem like a quick solution, it is not sustainable. Dying the tusks of elephants would involve capturing and sedating the animals. This process would likely cause great risk and distress to the animals that could be detrimental to individuals and herds. In addition to the risks associated with anesthetizing an animal as massive as an elephant (let alone a whole herd), tusks continually grow. An elephant’s tusk can grow as fast as an inch per year. At this rate, we would have to re-dye the elephants' tusks annually—an unfeasible task in size.
To end elephant poaching and the trade of ivory, we must break every link in the trade chain, from poaching to trafficking to demand. IFAW works to do this in a variety of ways. We work with government officials in Malawi and Zambia to strengthen the capacity of law enforcers and set up anti-poaching units that extend beyond borders in combating wildlife crime and trafficking of wildlife products. In Kenya and Tanzania, we train wildlife rangers and other law enforcement officials in intelligence gathering and data analysis. We also work with the judicial system to ensure they are able to effectively prosecute those committing wildlife crime. Many people become poachers because they have limited economic alternatives. IFAW works with local communities to create job opportunities that directly and indirectly protect elephants. Instead of hunting elephants, people can now join ranger training programs, become community informants, maintain park vehicles, or sew ranger uniforms.
To save elephants from ivory poaching, we need to shut down ivory markets, both offline and online, and change the mindset of consumers. Public awareness campaigns are critical for spreading awareness and changing consumer mindsets. IFAW surveys over the years revealed that most of the individuals surveyed did not know that ivory came from dead elephants and thought tusks naturally fell out like teeth. Talk to family members and friends about the deadly truth behind ivory. Pledge to say “no” to the purchase of ivory and report any suspicious wildlife products that you see for sale online. On a political level, we need to encourage more countries to pass and implement tighter restrictions on ivory, along with dissuasive penalties. Make your voice heard and vote for legislation that protects wildlife.
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