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Elephants and Ivory

April 30, 2015 Elephants Ivory


 It is most difficult to comprehend that anyone would kill an elephant to poach the ivory for purely decorative purposes. That is particularly the case as elephants are the closest animal group in terms of intelligence and empathy to the Hominidae family, composed of gorillas, chimps and humans. Historically, ivory was harvested for such special purposes as billiard balls, piano keys and decorative carvings. Synthetics have replaced ivory for pure functional usage whereas new wealth in China and Vietnam has spurred an even greater demand as a blatant, garish display of prosperity.

Recently, Bill Fitzhugh, Archeologist and Director of the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, reminded me that pre-historic man depended on mastodons as a principal source of food for some 20,000 years. Moreover, the ivory recovered by them was used to fashion spear tips to improve their hunting skills. Nonetheless, it is a major leap from ivory usage as a means for human survival to carved, tasteless, art objects.

Actually, elephant ivory tusks are elongated incisors and no different than teeth. All African elephants, male and female, have tusks whereas only some Asian males have them. Roughly one-half of female Asian elephants have short tusks called tushes.
Another interesting fact is tusks never stop growing. I think we can say this guy is a bit "long in the tooth." You will note that the tips of the tusks have been trimmed a to dull them. When a bull elephant goes into musth, an Urdu word for intoxicated, it is literally intoxicated on testosterone and can become pretty wild and uncontrollable.

Thai elephants are most fortunate to have fewer tusks and, perhaps, more importantly to be revered in their country. Unfortunately, their African cousins are not so fortunate. Given the high level of poverty in Africa, the financial incentives to poach ivory are difficult to overcome. Our mission has to be convincing the buyers of carved ivory that it is very "uncool" to have it and perhaps use some well-known Asian athletes to start spreading that message.

Many Thai mahouts wear a carved elephant bone necklace made from a departed family elephant to keep the elephant's spirit with the mahout and serve as a protective amulet. My good friend, Lung Ham, gave me one I wear in polo matches to help me stay on the elephant and postpone my departure. Notice the difference between a bull elephant in his sixties and one in his teens.