Regular readers of AfterImage Review know that environmental issues are a frequent topic of discussion. The global ivory trade is among the most complex issues concerning sustainability, endangered species, and the preservation of ecosystems around the world.

Reducing the demand for ivory products is part of the solution, but it will take decades of public awareness campaigns targeted at people of all ages to achieve a significant reduction in the number of people collecting items made from modern ivory. Both the legal and illegal trade in ivory continue to flourish.

Ivory comes from the tusks of elephants and walruses, the teeth of hippopotamus and whales, and the tusks of narwhals, the only species of whales with tusks. Today, collectors mainly seek decorative items made from ivory, unlike in previous centuries when ivory was used for a vast array of products, including hair combs, knife handles, and jewelry. In recent years, all confiscated shipments of ivory contained decorative items.

The global ban on new ivory items dates back to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973, which took effect in 1975. Amendments to the CITES convention have allowed for the legal buying and selling of ivory in some countries, but the trade was entirely banned in 1990.

Pre-1973 CITES Ivory

The CITES treaty does not apply to items made of ivory manufactured before 1973. In some countries, it is still legal to buy, sell, and trade items made from ivory carved prior to 1975 if the seller can provide documentation verifying the items’ age. However, skilled counterfeiters can forge certificates of authenticity, allowing illegal ivory to enter legal markets.

Like any high-value item, there will always be a market for ivory products, and global organized crime will smuggle and sell these items to those willing to pay. Increasing awareness and enacting legislation are crucial steps in protecting endangered species from the destructive ivory trade.

Is there such a thing as sustainable ivory?

Whether sustainable ivory can exist in the 21st century is a controversial and complex issue. There is high demand for decorative items made from genuine ivory in some Southeast Asian countries.

In China, Laos, and Vietnam, people routinely pay high prices for real ivory items, which contribute funding to local economies in impoverished areas. Collectors do not pay high prices for items made from plastic or ordinary animal bone.

The demand for real ivory items exists because collectors are unaware of issues related to endangered species protection. They know little about how many species were hunted to extinction from the 16th to the 20th century, and they are not aware that many species around the world are at risk of extinction due to overhunting and habitat loss. They do not pay attention to the complexities of preserving endangered species, rewilding, habitat protection, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems worldwide.

The long-term solution is to reduce demand for ivory items in countries where there is still a sizable number of collectors. This could be achieved by including the issue in science classes at elementary, junior high, and high schools, as well as raising awareness about endangered species through public awareness campaigns, including public service advertisements in newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television, and billboards.

However, anyone who has recently spent time in Southeast Asian countries where there are sizable numbers of ivory collectors will notice that effective campaigns to raise awareness about endangered species protection in those countries realistically will not occur for at least a few more decades.

National and local governments in those countries are already underfunded and understaffed, struggling to address several complex issues, and allocating funding for public awareness campaigns to educate people about endangered species is presently a low priority for most Southeast Asian governments.

close up of an elephant trunk
Photo by Leif Blessing on

The Role of Consumers

Education regulatory agencies in countries with high ivory collectors may emphasize species protection in science curricula for schools. However, this approach has limitations since fewer people complete high school in southeast Asian countries with high ivory collection rates, and private and religiously funded schools may not cover such topics.

Moreover, education campaigns may not always be successful, and there will always be those who ignore the lessons. While interest groups and charity organizations may raise public awareness, success may take many years to achieve. It’s also important to recognize that demand for genuine ivory products may never be eliminated, despite sustained awareness campaigns and education efforts.

Given the lack of emphasis on species protection education in southeast Asian countries, sustainable sources of ivory must be considered since the demand for ivory products is unlikely to decrease significantly in the near future.

Potential Sources for Legal Ivory

Animals kept in zoos and aquariums around the world eventually die from natural causes. Some of their carcasses are used for scientific research, while the rest are typically incinerated. The teeth and tusks from animals that live their entire lives in captivity could be a potential source for ivory, without causing harm to wild populations.

The carcasses of wild animals that die of natural causes could be another possible source of ivory for countries with a high demand for ivory products. While the decomposition of animal carcasses is essential for contributing to their native ecosystems, there may be an exception for teeth and tusks. Teeth and tusks of animals that died during the Pleistocene and Paleolithic eras, which are as old as 100,000 years or more, have hardly decomposed at all and are routinely discovered at archaeological and mining sites. Removing teeth and tusks from deceased animals in these locations could potentially be harmless to their ecosystems.

Regulating this practice would be notably difficult, but ignoring the issue would harm wild populations.

Modern Ivory Trade

Whaling laws vary by country, and some permit limited hunting of certain whale species. The effects of limited legal whaling on wild populations are being studied, but it’s still uncertain if hunting a small number of whales from specific species significantly damages wild populations. If it’s determined that limited legal hunting doesn’t harm wild populations, it could become a source of legal, sustainable ivory.

Modern sources of ivory include whales, walruses, hippopotamuses, and elephants, but ivory derived from ancient sources, such as mammoth tusks, should be distinguished from modern sources. Gold miners in northern Canada, Alaska, and Russia are discovering mammoth tusks, which can be used to create decorative items that look almost identical to those carved from elephant tusks. Some mammoth tusks could be sent to biology laboratories and museums, while a percentage might be allocated for the collectible ivory markets.

Reintroducing animals born in captivity could help recover endangered species populations, which may have implications for legal ivory trade in the future. If populations of certain species recover to the point where their numbers are nearly equivalent to those prior to the nineteenth century, very limited and regulated hunting may be necessary to prevent overpopulation. It could take 50+ years before the most endangered species reach their populations of 200 years ago, and overpopulation may need to be analyzed closely in future decades.

A grand piano made for Queen Victoria in 1856 has ivory keys. White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace: S & P Erard grand piano, 1856 RCIN 2426

Historic Artifacts and Collections

Historic artifacts and collections have been banned from carving, selling, or purchasing new items made from ivory since the CITES treaty was written in 1973 and entered into force in 1975. By the 1970s, collecting items made from ivory had become less popular than in the early 20th century, and ivory collecting had been far more common in earlier centuries.

Archaeologists routinely find ivory items at archaeology sites dating as far back as the mesolithic and neolithic eras. These items are sent to museums for display, and the rest are sent to laboratories at universities for scientists from different fields to study. Some, if not all, of the royal families of Europe possess numerous ivory items in their collections and archives. These items date back to the eras of European colonialism throughout Asia, the Pacific islands, Africa, and the Americas.

The Collections of Royal Families of Europe

Prince William has been contemplating destroying all the Windsor family’s ivory items since 2014 to raise awareness about endangered species. However, displaying historic ivory items in museums worldwide would be a better use for these items, particularly those made between the Roman era and the first half of the 20th century, as they can be used to educate people about reckless practices of previous centuries.

Although laws regarding the artworks owned by the royal families of Europe vary between countries, laws prohibit the sale of almost all items owned by them. The collections of the royal families are legally considered to be part of the cultural heritage of respective countries and are the property of the national archives. While members of the royal families cannot sell any items from their collections, they can loan them to museums worldwide. The curators of art museums, history museums, and natural history museums worldwide would be interested in displaying the historical ivory items presently in the collections of the royal families of Europe.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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