Kilimanjaro Tusks, ca. 1898
Most elephants are right- or left-tusk dominant.
True! Like humans, elephants have a preference over which tusk they use for their primary jobs (such as breaking branches, digging for water, ripping bark off trees). You can tell which tusk is dominant by looking at it- the most-used tusk will be shorter and rounder at the tip.
A tusk can be removed without killing the elephant.
False! In fact, a broken tusk, which is common, can lead to a life-threatening infection. But poachers use darts, poison and high-powered automatic rifles with night scopes to take elephants down and, while they are dying, the tusks are gouged out of from the living elephant's skull. The elephants die an agonizing, slow death from hemorrhage.
Photo © Boubandjida Safari Lodge courtesy of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
Like an iceberg, much of an elephant's tusk is below the surface.
True! Only two thirds of the elephant's tusk is made of ivory and is visible while the elephant is living. The base of the tusk is embedded in the skull and made of pulp, blood and nerves -like the roots of our own teeth.
Only elephants produce ivory.
False! Ivory can be taken from hippos, walruses, sperm whales, horn-billed birds and even from fossilized mammoths. What makes elephant ivory so prized is its softer carvability.
We can prevent poaching by dying or scarring the tusks of living elephants.
False! Though many have proposed solutions like this, they are impractical as elephants would have to be darted with anesthetic or their watering holes infused with dye. Darting is far from an exact science and can kill or maim an elephant. Surface scars into the ivory could be repaired by sanding or, if they are too deep, could cause infection. Placing chemicals in the water supply risks poisoning the elephants and other smaller animals who use the same source, but also doesn't solve the problem of making future growth of the tusk undesirable.
There is an alternative to ivory.
True! Synthetic celluloid ivory (also called "French Ivory") can be crafted to the same standards as genuine ivory and its price in China is less than 20% of real ivory.
A palm-like tree called Tagua gives us 7-20" nuts that can be carved like ivory and are used for everything from jewelry to umbrella handles-an inexpensive and renewable alternative.