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Ivory is a unique substance found in several animals including walruses, whales, rhinos, hippopotami, and, most famously, elephants. The close grained creamy white to yellow teeth of these animals lend themselves to carving and have been used in art for centuries by skilled craftspeople. However, an animal must be slaughtered to obtain ivory, since the bulk of the material is actually embedded deep within the skull. This has resulted in the decimation of many animal populations, particularly elephants, leading to severe restrictions on the global ivory trade.
The word “ivory” first appeared in the English language in the twelfth century, and is probably derived from several African words meaning elephant. Elephants have been slaughtered for their valuable ivory for centuries, because their massive size leads to a large yield of the precious material. Had elephants been sustainably and sensibly harvested for their ivory, the ivory trade might not have become an issue. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, automatic weapons started to be used to kill elephants at an alarming rate, and at the peak of the ivory trade, 75,000 Asian and African elephants were being killed every year for their ivory: far more than either population could sustain.
Growing concerns about the killing of elephants to feed the ivory trade led to protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989; both types of elephant are listed under Appendix I, meaning that all trade in their products is prohibited except under special circumstances. Countries which have agreed to abide by CITES are supposed to heavily prosecute anyone caught trading in post-1989 ivory or poaching elephants for their tusks. Sadly, government corruption has led to a thriving underground ivory trade, and ivory is available to those who want it, for a price.
The ivory trade is most heavily fueled by Asian nations, with the bulk of ivory being processed through nations like China, Japan, India, and Thailand. While the ivory trade has shrunk since elephants were protected under CITES, elephant populations are still under threat of poaching, which is combining with habitat reduction to threaten elephants with extinction in the wild. Poaching for ivory is extremely harmful; not only does it reduce the elephant population, but it also disrupts the social structure of elephant herds, and it costs global governments millions of dollars in anti-poaching efforts and prosecution for illegal trade in ivory.
According to CITES, pre-1989 ivory is legal for trade, along with ivory from some other animal species. In addition, agreements have been reached with certain African nations including Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to allow these nations to sell off their stockpiles of confiscated ivory, along with the tusks of animals culled from recovering elephant populations. Most activists agree, however, that purchasing any type of ivory, even ivory than can be proven legal, supports the ivory trade. Concerned consumers should avoid handling and purchasing ivory for the sake of the elephants, along with other animals slaughtered for their remarkable teeth.