13 min read

The Truth About Tusks

A True/False Quiz

Think you know something about elephants? Well here you can test your knowledge about tusks and see why there's such an uproar about ivory. Ready?

True or false:

All elephants grow tusks.

False! All African elephants grow tusks, but only some male Asian elephants have tusks. Some female Asian elephants have very tiny tusks called tushes but no long tusks.

An Asian elephant. Photo Credit: Jayanand Govindaraj

No two tusks are alike.

True! In fact, researchers who track elephants use the appearance of the tusks, along with the ears, to identify individuals.

If an elephant breaks a tusk it will grow back.

False! Tusks are teeth and just like our teeth, if one is broken, it stays broken. But unlike our teeth, a tusk can continue growing from the root if that isn't damaged. It's not unusual to see an elephant with only one tusk because the other was injured to the point that it stopped growing.

The tusk is the equivalent of our incisor teeth (the tooth on either side of our two front teeth). It is made of ivory, a material soft enough to be carved, which is the root of the poaching problem.

All elephant teeth are ivory.

False! Only the tusks are made of ivory-an extremely dense dentine covered with a carveable calcified rind called cementum. The rest of the elephant's teeth are made from enamel, dentin and pulp, like ours.

Photo Credit US Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Lab

We can tell an elephant's age by the length of its tusk.

True! As long as the tusk hasn't been broken, it can reveal an elephant's age relative to other elephants of the same sex and species. Because most of the elephants with the longest tusks have been killed, their genes are no longer passed along. That is one of the reasons authorities are confiscating shorter and thinner tusks every year. Another reason: Since most of the oldest bull elephants have been poached for their longer tusks, poachers now are going after the females and the younger males. This spells disaster for breeding herds.

One of the largest tusks ever found was about 10 feet long and weighed over 200 pounds. Tusks can grow up to seven inches a year.

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.

A piece made from synthetic ivory. Source: Pin It

Tagua Nuts and carvings. Photo Credit Suzette Leith And piano keys? Do elephants still need to die for those? No! There are alternatives-such as plastic and resin-and evolved musicians won't use anything but non-ivory keys. Read what Piano Man Billy Joel has to say about the subject here.

Source: Billyjoel.com

It is okay to buy and sell "antique" ivory items.

False! While some rationalize the market for old ivory by saying "the elephant died years ago, so what's the harm?" The truth is that any market for ivory creates a demand for tusks, which is leading to the rapid extinction of elephants. In fact, the more "valuable" ivory is seen as being, the more likely it is that people who can't afford antiques will buy new ivory as an investment. In addition, it's hard to tell the age of carved ivory, and new ivory can be artificially aged and papers forged about when it was bought/sold, making import and export exceptions for antique ivory a gigantic loophole that international traders abuse to profit from their horrendous crimes.

Think of ivory as the new fur. Would you wear a fur coat-even an old one? If you own ivory you can keep it; just don't wear it or sell it. Become part of the movement to remove ads for ivory from sites like Google and eBay. If you live in the U.S., sign a petition to ban ivory trade in your state here.

The United States has banned the sale of ivory.

False! The U.S. currently is the second largest market for ivory in the world, with China being #1. In February 2014 a partial ban on the import and export of elephant ivory was put in place and is now in force, but sadly there are exceptions that permit antique, noncommercial, and "personal use" import and export. Just as bad, it continues to allow inhumane hunters to import elephant heads as trophies. No, this is not the 18th century, but it sounds like it, right?

There isn't much you can do to stop poachers.

False! One of the more effective ways to stop elephant poaching is to eliminate the market for ivory.

On October 4, 2014, March for Elephants is conducting worldwide educational marches about the ivory trade in 105 cities worldwide. You can go to their site to sign petitions to ban import and sale of ivory and you can find more petitions at 96 Elephants.

You can use Twitter and Facebook to educate your friends and family know about this issue and what they can do-including never buying, selling or wearing ivory.

Finally, you can support organizations like Big Life that are stopping poachers on the ground in Africa.

So, the truth about tusks? They belong on elephants...not on us, not in stores, not on our walls, and not on the auction block.

Painting by Sarah Soward: Sarah Soward Facebook.com/rhinotopia