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Elephants or Ivory? Which do we want?

Synthetic ivory is also called “Mandarin Ivory” or “Hong Kong Ivory”. It does not come from elephants or harm any endangered species. That alone makes it more beautiful. If it continues to be essential that we have beautiful works of art such as ivory statues and ivory carvings – then let these objets d’art be made of synthetic ivory not real ivory from intelligent, self-aware, living animals.


Trading of elephant ivory has been going on since the 14th century BC, but it was most prevalent in southern Africa in the 19th century and in Western Africa during the 20th century. 1979 estimates of elephant populations in Africa were 1.3 million, by 1989 only 600,000 were left. The illegal trade of elephant ivory was fueled by its value in buying arms, and was found to be greatest in areas where law and order had severely broken down.

Reference: Kenya Elephant Forum Factsheet 02

Although ivory was used for many things before plastics (piano keys and billiard balls, for example), the major surge in demand for ivory came with the growth in affluence following World War II. Good quality raw ivory has always been in demand by artists and expert carvers the world over. Ivory is considered a luxury commodity that once could be enjoyed only by royalty.

The Greatest Dangers to Elephants

The greatest dangers to all elephants is poaching and the encroachment of humans with the inevitable destruction of the elephants large grazing and mating area. The decline of the Asian elephant has been more gradual than the African elephant because the serious issue of trade in elephant ivory has affected the African elephant more. But now both species have been placed on Appendix One of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Asian Elephant (l) African Elephant (r)

Asian Elephant (l) African Elephant (r)

African and Asian Elephants

We can distinguish African (savannah and forest) elephants and Asian elephants in many ways, but one of the most obvious is the size of the ears. The African elephant has much larger ears than the Asian elephant. Another obvious way is by the tusks. African elephants, both males and females, have tusks that are longer and thicker than Asian male elephants who have thinner and straighter tusks. It is interesting to know that elephants are like us in that they are right-tusked or left-tusked. The shorter of the two tusks will be the one most used.

Elephants are Self-Aware, Intelligent, Caring Animals

I find it extremely difficult to turn a ‘blind eye’ to the annihilation of elephants for the monetary value of ivory to purchase illicit drugs or weapons, or for the carnal or sensory value of ivory in any form: jewelry, collectables or even art.

When you learn that elephants are self-aware, they recognize themselves in mirrors, they are willing to share responsibilities, they will form a team to accomplish tasks, and they show empathy for others in their family, it is difficult to think of elephants in terms of just being big brutes.

Reference: Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans B. M. de Waal, and Diana Reiss (2006) Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(45):17053–17057 10.1073/pnas.0608062103

Reference: Elephants Show Cooperation on Test

And when I learned that elephants show definite signs of altruism (they give to one another without expecting anything in return), I just wanted to bring a few right into my own home!

In science fiction, self-awareness is considered an essential characteristic of “personhood”. When computers become self-aware like Hal did in Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, it is expected that they be treated with the same respect that humans are. Gives one pause for thought, doesn’t it.

Reference: Robert Kolker, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, p. 106, Oxford University Press US, 2006 ISBN 978-0195174526

Three African Bush Elephants

Three African Bush Elephants

An Unusual Outcome of Killing Tusked Elephants

The decline of elephants with no tusks has (apparently) led to more births of tusk-less elephants as a result of the great increase of the “absent tusk gene”. Once a rare abnormality, being born without tusks has become widespread.

Reference: The Learning Kingdom's Cool Fact of the Day for March 30, 1999: Why are African elephants being born with no tusks?

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1900s Chinese ivory sculpture. The globe at the top has 54 independently rotating layers. Photo taken by Bmdavll in Jan. 2007 in Guangzhou, China.).jpg

1900s Chinese ivory sculpture. The globe at the top has 54 independently rotating layers. Photo taken by Bmdavll in Jan. 2007 in Guangzhou, China.).jpg

There is No Choice:

If Intent on Buying Ivory Buy Synthetic Ivory Only

Ivory art, jewelry, and collectables (such as the erotic Japanese netsukes) continue to be in high demand. Especially when the item is antique and considered of value. These items continue to be traded within countries but not between countries due to it being illegal. But capitalism being the mother of invention has created a synthetic ivory that looks every bit as beautiful as real ivory. So if you appreciate the aesthetic appeal of ivory art but do not wish to pay the price for antique ivory then “Hong Kong” ivory or “Mandarin” ivory is certainly the way to go.

The picture on the right is of an antique ivory Puzzle Ball and particularly intricate real antique ivory stand. It is made from real elephant tusk ivory.

It is carved by a true ivory carving 'master' which gives it much of its value. Compare the Puzzle Ball in this image with the synthetic ivory Puzzle Ball, below. Both are beautiful and both required the skill of a master carver. But the Puzzle Ball below is made of ox bone not an elephant.

Ox bone is now used to make “Hong Kong” ivory. It is ground into a fine powder and mixed with resins to form a certain shape and size. It would also have the weight and feel of real ivory.

Synthetic Chinese Puzzle Ball

Synthetic Chinese Puzzle Ball

The incredibly Beautiful and intricate Chinese Puzzle Ball.

One of the most fascinating of ivory carvings is the Chinese Puzzle Ball. Taken from a solid ball of synthetic ivory it would be turned on a lathe and evenly spaced conical holes would be drilled into the ball. A master carver would take his L-shaped tools and, using the longest tool with the shortest angle, would carve out the first of say, eight balls within the round ball. He would work from the center outwards until he had his separate balls, one inside the other, each ball able to revolve freely within the outer balls.

The outer ball would in fact, be 2 layers thick because it is the outer ball that would have the most intricate carvings. These outer carvings would be thicker than the carvings on the inner balls in order to preserve the integrity of the puzzle ball.

Shown are two puzzle balls. The one above, is a valuable antique carved from real ivory. The ivory is cream, the natural color of the ivory.

The image to right (and slightly above) is also a puzzle ball but it is made from “Hong Kong” ivory, not elephant ivory. It has all the intricacy of the antique puzzle ball, but stands alone. (It would usually rest on top of a specially made stand that would then rest on the typical wooden base.) The color is whiter than natural ivory because it has been bleached. The whiter ivory is what is found in most “collectable” ivory art today.

The Third Species of Elephant


Important Update: March 2013

The 178-Nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) met in Thailand earlier this month. It's main purpose was to address the extremely urgent issue of the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for the illegal ivory trade.

According to CITES Director-General John Scanlon,

"This criminal activity poses a serious threat to the stability and economies of these countries. It also robs these countries of their natural heritage," Scanlon said. "These criminals must be stopped, and we need to prepare to deploy the sorts of techniques that are used to combat the trade in narcotics to do so."

During the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, activists held posters urging people to also stop the trading of tigers.

Elephant Sized Steps Taken to End Ivory Trade

An elephant-sized step was taken March 3, 2013 by Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who vowed to end her country’s trade in ivory. But because the local market in ivory is skyrocketing, smuggled ivory from African countries is mixed in with already existing internal supply and continuing to push an unprecedented slaughter of elephant in Africa.

The 178-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), that met in Bangkok in early March, was encouraged by this statement but, until Thailand develops and implements national legislation banning trade in ivory, the poaching crisis in Africa will not likely abate as much as hoped. Until Thailand legislates not to trade in smuggled ivory, trade sanctions can be imposed by CITES member countries to halt trade in all 35,000 species regulated by the convention.

CITES banned international trade in ivory in 1989. However, this has no affect on those countries that have a strong domestic trade in ivory collected from domestic elephants.

According to CITES Director-General John Scanlon, illegal wildlife trafficking is in crisis and, unless this stops, the planet will lose many of its most iconic species. The slaughter of elephants and rhinos is at the top of 70 concerns to be addressed at the global conference.

If you really like ivory art and want to buy some today, there is no question but that you purchase only synthetic ivory and do no harm to the intelligent animals known as elephants.

© 2011 Marilyn Alexander


Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on January 08, 2015:

I choose elephants over ivory. Writing about elephants is all I can do. Hope you will do what you can to help protect these magnificent animals.

Yancy on January 08, 2015:

Hey, you're the goto exrtpe. Thanks for hanging out here.

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on January 07, 2015:

It is almost impossible to stop the killing of elephants!

Their ivory tusks are so valuable to those who wish to trade in arms and/or drugs. The poaching of elephants doesn't even help those who do the killing--they get paid peanuts while the traders receive the major benefits of their efforts.

Buying "Hong Kong" ivory is a small step towards reducing the value of ivory. But those who can afford to purchase intricately carved ivory want the "best". And they consider that only "real" ivory is good enough for them.

I wish I could do more.

Lore on January 07, 2015:

Gosh, I wish I would have had that inaomrftion earlier!

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on March 06, 2013:

Playdivadi - Thank you for your kind comments. You are VERY concerned about the criminal trade in ivory and the slaughter of elephants, I hope you noticed that this issue is at the top of CITES agenda at its annual meeting in Thailand this year. Perhaps it's time people like you and me, wrote to CITES to see how we can help more.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article and to comment - especially when I wrote such pointed comments on your recent hub. I know we agree that the destruction of elephants must stop. Having connected with you through our hubs I hope we can share our success in this area.

Sincerely, Marilyn

Diane Denison from Cincinnati on March 06, 2013:

I really enjoyed reading this article, your style of writing is very informative and classy..

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on March 03, 2013:

Important Update:

Elephant-sized steps taken to end slaughter of elephants and illegal trading in ivory. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meets in Thailand today. Most urgent issues on agenda are the illegal trade in ivory and stopping the slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa.

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on December 11, 2012:

Thank you so much for your comments, cclitgirl. Not for me, of course, but for these beautiful creatures. By commenting, you bring this issue to the forefront one more time.

I agree that many humans need to rethink their impact on the many forms of life on this planet. Destruction of elephants is because of greed - not for anything else I can think of. It is indeed, beyond shameful.

Thank you, again.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on December 11, 2012:

What a wonderful hub. I cannot thank you enough for writing it because these special creatures need the help of caring humans. I wish we humans could understand the impact we're having on all the life on this planet and with species going extinct at our own hands is beyond shameful. Beyond shameful. Thank you again for highlighting such an important issue.

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on November 18, 2012:

bdegiulio, I so agree with your comments. These people not only don't have a heart, they are senseless cruel and very short-sighted! Because of the global embargo on elephant ivory there are stockpiles of elephant tusks in Africa that will go nowhere. As dwachira says above, there are many excellent projects in many nations on the African continent, that are designed to raise awareness and help preserve these beautiful animals.

Thanks, bdegiulio for reading my article and for your caring comments. Marilyn

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on November 18, 2012:

Maralexa, I can't tell you how upset I get when I read about poaching of elephants. What is wrong with mankind that we would kill a beautiful creature for it's tusks so that we could make trinkets out of it. I just don't get it? Don't these people have a heart? Thank you for helping to raise awareness. VU, sharing everywhere, etc....

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on November 18, 2012:

Hi dwachira. YES, help save the African elephant and rhino!!

Thanks so much for your excellent referral to the hub on rhinos. I agree with your comments so much. Let us both keep the word out. There are many of us on HubPages that feel the same way!

Danson Wachira from Nairobi, Kenya on November 18, 2012:

Hi Maralexa,

Poaching and human encroachment that lead to human animal conflicts have been some of the greatest threats to African animals and especially Elephants and Rhinos. While many nations in Africa have initiated different community projects like this one: to save these animals, a lot need to be done. Thanks Maralexa for pointing this one out, we all need these animals and what will be the world without the beauty of animals. Voted up, useful and shared.

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on May 17, 2012:

I agree 100%. Elephants are so much more valuable and important than their ivory tusks. We each ought to do something specific and positive to save elephants or other endangered species of our choice. Thanks for your comments, Sid.

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on May 17, 2012:

I have felt the intelligence and spiritual love of elephants first hand. Each life is precious, let us not kill for luxury or beauty. Voted up!

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on October 19, 2011:

Thanks for your comments, molometer. It IS a scandal that killing elephants for their tusks continues. I could forgive if hunger were the prime reason for this slaughter -- but it isn't. The prime reasons are usually for weapons and drugs.

As more and more intelligent people become aware of this tragedy, perhaps more can be done to save these beautiful creatures.

Micheal from United Kingdom on October 19, 2011:

Hi Maralexa what a terrific read well informed and well written.

It is a scandal that this poaching continues and there is so much corruption in these countries (I've seen it first hand) that unless a miracle happens, it doesn't look good for just about any wildlife.

Zimbabwe is hunted out already and now they are deep into South Africa decimating herds all over the north of the country.

Terrible combination of greed mismanagement and hunger I'm afraid.

Great hub voted up UI and sad.

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on September 06, 2011:

The fur of baby seals and their meat go to the Asian market also. As a matter of fact, there are lobbyists in North American countries who want to see this market grow. $ seems to talk loudly. Thanks for your valuable comments, Will.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on September 06, 2011:

An article pointed out that almost the entire demand that leads to animal poaching, from tiger paws, to rhino horns, to elephant feet, to grizzly bear gall bladders, and elephant ivory comes from the Asian market. If we could stop that, we could save endangered species.

Good Hub!

Marilyn Alexander (author) from Vancouver, Canada on September 04, 2011:

Thanks for commenting Marisa, I appreciate your taking the time to read my hub and write a comment. I too like the synthetic ivory -- it is as expertly carved and more beautiful for its colour.

Kate Swanson from Sydney on September 04, 2011:

Personally, I find the synthetic ivory more beautiful than the real thing - because the real thing is often discolored and dirty-looking. The uniform creamy whiteness of the synthetic stuff is far more attractive!

LegendaryN8 from USA on August 27, 2011:

I know the subject of dealing in ivory has been highly controversial, and it is interesting to find out that synthetic ivory is available.

Kathy from The beautiful Napa Valley, California on August 17, 2011:

Dear Maralexa, once again, you've produced a well written, well documented and supported article. Intelligence personified with a good helping of heart! Bravo and two thumbs way up! Of course, the subject is of utmost importance; that we must discontinue the marketing/selling/illegal trade of elephant ivory. Though beautiful and highly sought after; ivory is no longer a symbol of true beauty but, rather, suffering and unnecessary waste; death of an intelligent, sentient creature whose #'s are dwindling rapidly. We are better than this; we no longer must use animals for our own imagined needs or gains. That is behavior which belongs in our past.

Wonderfully authored by you, Maralexa...this one is sorely needed. I just read a short hub by Dina who implores readers to act against the senseless slaughter of baby seals for their fur and fat. Another archiac act which belongs in the logues of human history.

Up Useful and Beautiful...not for the ivory or even the substitute but because you care enough to educate us.

Your friend, Kathy

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