—Yoruba saying from Nigeria notes the elephant is without equal and beyond measure (a superlative linked to powerful individuals, such as rulers, diviners, healers, and elders).
Ivory is found in all units of the Smithsonian Institution, from the National Museum of Natural History to the National Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian takes its commitment to treasuring these historical collections very seriously, while also actively advocating for more effective measures to protect endangered animal populations. The National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in particular holds many wonderful artworks made of ivory in its collection (The illustrated artworks, photographed by Franko Khoury, are from NMAfA’s collection). As stewards of this collection, the museum and staff value its role in protecting and preserving these beautiful, historical, and important works of art. At the same time, we are aware of the current international demand for ivory, the dangers of the illicit ivory trade, and the current risks to elephant populations. This resource aims to inform the public about ivory—the material, its cultural uses and its importance—as well as the risks facing elephants today and the efforts to help protect this endangered species. It also offers an introduction to ivory identification and artifact preservation.
—Duala proverb from Cameroon refers to responsibility.
Ivory is the hard, white material from the tusks and teeth of elephants, hippopotami, walruses, warthogs, sperm whales and narwhals, as well as now extinct mammoths and mastodons. This resource focuses specifically on elephant ivory, which is the most popular and highly valued of all ivories.
There are two living elephant species, the Asian elephant and the African elephant. African elephants are the largest land mammals in the world and can be found in 37 countries across the African continent. There are two subspecies: African savannah elephants which are found in eastern and southern African nations such as Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe and African forest elephants, which are more prevalent in the dense rainforests of the central and western part of the continent. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, while, comparatively, only some male Asian elephants have tusks.
Tusks are incisor teeth that connect to the elephant’s upper jaw and protrude even when the mouth is closed. Elephants use their tusks for maneuvering, fighting, and foraging, including digging for roots and stripping bark from trees. In addition to tusks, elephants also have molar teeth for tearing and chewing food. Tusks and teeth are composed of the same materials—mainly mineralized tissue known as dentine and cementum. Teeth, however, are usually covered with a hard layer of enamel, while enamel on tusks is found only at the tips, if at all. At the base or root end of the tusk is the pulp cavity, a cone-shaped void filled with soft tissue that extends about one-third of the way into the interior of the tusk.
Tusks grow throughout an elephant’s life. Dentine layers are produced annually, similar to the growth of tree rings. African elephant tusks can be up to 10 feet long (three meters) and weigh up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms), although most tusks of elephants living today are smaller. In much the same way that humans are right- or left-handed, elephants can be either right- or left-tusked, and their dominant tusk is usually smaller from wear.
—Kuba proverb from the Democratic Republic of Congo associates chieftaincy with the elephant and is a metaphor for titleholding.
Elephant ivory has been considered a valued luxury material across cultures and continents for millennia. Ivory artifacts have been found on archaeological sites in Africa, Asia, and Europe, providing evidence of widespread trading. Prized for its beauty and usefulness, ivory is durable, relatively easy to carve in fine detail, and has a smooth, lustrous appearance. In comparison to teeth or tusks from other animals, elephant ivory has been favored because of its large size and homogenous appearance.
Ivory can be sawed, carved, engraved, turned on a lathe, and polished to a high shine. It can also be bleached, stained with dyes and colorants, or painted. Ivory’s creamy white, semi-translucent appearance develops a yellowed patina as it ages. Objects made of ivory in NMAfA’s collection range in color from bright white (69-20-4) to a deep red-brown from the application of palm oils and camwood (86- 2-1).
Within NMAfA’s collection, ivory is found in the forms of exquisitely carved figures, containers, jewelry, musical instruments, tools, and weapons. It is important to note that this historical use of ivory in Africa was limited, generally reserved for individuals of high status and did not put elephant populations at risk. These animals were seen as powerful and dangerous, and owning ivory was a status marker. Ivory topped staffs, such as those made by Kongo (86-2-1) and Attie (2005-6-62) carvers, were carried as symbols of authority and wealth. Before the widespread use of guns and electric carving tools, elephant hunting and ivory carving were specialized occupations. Within the Benin kingdom, elephant hunting and the distribution of its meat were regulated by the oba (king). For every elephant killed, one tusk belonged to the king and one could be sold.
Ivory was traded widely from the 15th through the 19th centuries and was prized as a luxury item not only in Africa but throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Ivory carvings were also commissioned by foreign kings. The carved hunting horn (2005-6-9) made in the late 15th century by a Bullom or Temne artist was given as a gift by Prince Manuel of Portugal to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. With increased trade, carvers not only made items for local use but also made souvenirs for sale to foreigners.
Ivory was also exported as a raw material, and became popular for mass-produced objects such as piano keys, billiard balls, knife handles, jewelry, and other novelties. Beginning in the 20th century, the quality and applications of plastics replaced many of the utilitarian functions of ivory. However, the international demand for ivory has continued to increase. Today, elephants are hunted at rates higher than in which they can naturally reproduce.
The contemporary demand for ivory has been compared to that of diamonds, in that they are both natural materials with little inherent value but their culturally constructed value, as a status symbol, is high. Similarly, the demand for both materials in wealthy parts of the world causes violence and destruction in the areas where these natural materials are found. Currently the country with the highest demand for ivory is China, followed by Japan, Thailand, and the United States. The goals of recently publicized ivory crush-and-burn events, aside from removing ivory from the market, are to reverse the idea of ivory as a status symbol and shrink its market value, in an effort to decrease demand and illegal hunting.Why are elephants threatened? It is not the elephant who wants for ivory.
—Duala proverb from Cameroon refers to the ivory trade.
With increased human populations and activities such as land development, infrastructure construction, logging, and mining, elephants are losing their habitats and facing declining populations. The greatest threat, by far to elephants today however, is poaching (illegal killing), spurred by the global demand for ivory. Unlike deer that shed and regrow their antlers yearly, elephants do not shed their tusks; they must be killed (or severely injured) to harvest their ivory.
Poachers and sellers are part of an illegal, underground black market that is connected with other types of illegal activity, such as terrorist groups. By buying recently created ivory products, consumers are contributing to this web of criminal activity that adversely affects local communities near elephant habitats and along international trade/smuggling routes. Ivory consumption also has a human cost. While rangers have the challenging job of protecting animals, they also face personal risk and may be estranged from their communities for carrying out their duties. Conversely, individuals may turn to poaching as a means of supporting their families and, if arrested or killed in the process, may leave their families without a provider. African elephants are particularly susceptible to poaching because local authorities face challenges in oversight and protection due to limited government resources and difficulties in accessing their habitats.
African elephants are likely to become endangered and face a high risk of extinction in the future. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are approximately 415,000 African elephants in the wild today, compared to three to five million during the 19th century. During the 1980s African elephant populations decreased by almost 50 percent. Since monitoring began approximately 30 years ago, 2011 has been the worst year on record, with the largest amount of illegal ivory confiscated worldwide. It has been estimated that 35,000 elephants are illegally killed each year for their ivory. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants campaign emphasizes the unfortunate fact that 96 elephants are killed in Africa each day—that is one elephant every 15 minutes. (Asian elephants are still threatened by poaching but not all Asian elephants have tusks.)
—Asante proverb from Ghana references the invincible power of the elephant.
- U.S. Legislation
The sharp decline in elephant populations from poaching during the 1980s led to a series of laws and regulations to help protect the species. In 1990, an international ban on the trade and sale of ivory went into effect among participating governments of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES. In 2016, the United States enacted a nationwide near-total ban on the sale of ivory, with exceptions such as antiques at least 100 years old and items containing small amounts of ivory, like musical instruments, furniture, and firearms. Several states, including California, New York, and Hawaii, have also passed legislation to ban ivory trading within their borders. Great Britain, China, and some other countries are also following suit by increasing regulations on the trade of ivory.What does this legislation mean for individuals, collectors, galleries, and museums? Owning and displaying ivory, provided it was lawfully acquired, is legal. Donating, gifting, or receiving a donation or gift of ivory (provided it was lawfully acquired) is legal within the U.S.; many states, however, have additional regulations. All documentation showing origin, dates, and history of ownership for ivory artifacts should be kept and transferred with the object if it changes hands.
Regulations differ depending on the source of the ivory, whether from African or Asian elephants. A summary of common questions related to African elephant ivory regulations is presented below. These laws are complex and subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Additional details can be found on their useful website entitled, “What can I do with my ivory?”
- Wildlife conservation organizations
African elephants and their habitats are protected in national parks, private parks, and game reserves across the continent. Trained rangers in these parts, such as Kruger National Park in South Africa. Trained rangers in these parks are the first line of defense against poachers. Additionally, many wildlife protection organizations such as the FWS African Elephant Conservation Fund, World Wildlife Fund, and Wildlife Conservation Society, partner with local agencies and communities in Africa to support elephant conservation initiatives. These activities include monitoring elephant populations, protecting habitats, implementing anti-poaching tactics, tracking illegal trade, and increasing education. Elephant populations in some protected areas, such as in Kenya and Tanzania have stabilized or increased due to these conservation methods. The greatest numbers of African elephants today are found in northern Botswana, followed by Tanzania.
- Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian is committed to raising awareness of the illegal poaching of elephants and the illicit trade of ivory. Ivory in its collections is from historical collections, and is not contributing to the illegal ivory trade or the extinction of elephants. As part of the Smithsonian’s mission, we maintain collections for research and study and for visitors’ enjoyment and appreciation, while also providing safe storage and preservation of these artifacts in perpetuity. In addition, the Smithsonian supports research into elephant conservation. Look for the labels near ivory objects in NMAfA’s galleries describing historical uses of ivory, as well as highlighting contemporary elephant conservation efforts and the problems of ivory poaching today.
—Duala proverb from Cameroon refers to wisdom and diplomacy.
A range of natural and synthetic materials have been used to replicate ivory, especially in recent centuries as ivory has become rarer and more expensive. Teeth, bones, and antlers from other animals, vegetable ivory from palm nuts, and plastics have all been used as substitutes.
- Elephant ivory
Elephant ivory can be identified by its characteristic cross-hatched or engine-turned pattern, known as Schreger lines, named after the scientist who first described them. These arcs are only apparent in cross-sectional views of ivory and are an optical effect resulting from the grown pattern of the tusk. The angles created by the cross-hatched pattern can be measured and used to help identify the species. In African and Asian elephant species, the angles created by this pattern are obtuse (> 90°), while in extinct species from the Elephantidae family, such as mammoths, the angles are acute (< 90°). Longitudinal surfaces of ivory may have a layered or slightly wood-grain appearance.
- Ivory from other species
Ivory from the tusks or teeth of other animals, such as walruses, hippopotami, and narwhals, has different layered formations and structural patterns; Schreger lines are not present.
- Bone and antler
Bone and antlers are composed of the same proteins and minerals as ivory. Ivory, however, is harder and denser. Bone and antlers are best identified by the appearance of small pits or channels, which may darken from accumulated dirt and grime. Unlike ivory, bone is living tissue, and these voids, called Haversian canals, are evidence of channels for blood and nerves.
- Vegetable ivory
Vegetable ivory is composed of cellulose, or plant material, and can only be used to produce relatively small artifacts due to the size of the nuts.
Beginning as early as the late 19th century, a variety of plastics made of natural and synthetic polymers were developed to mimic ivory. Plastics may be lighter in weight than ivory and may have air bubbles or visible seams from the molding process.
- Identification methods
To date, the distinctive features of ivory have not been successfully replicated. Nevertheless, substituted materials can look quite similar and distinguishing between them and ivory can be difficult, especially when the object is small and elaborately carved or painted. Visual examination with magnification and a trained eye can aid in identifying different types of ivory and ivory substitutes. For more definitive identification, certain analytical tools may be used however, these tests are destructive, requiring a small sample be removed from the object. Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) can distinguish between ivory and some substitutes, although bone may be too similar in composition to differentiate.
DNA analysis can more definitively identify the animal source, including identification within species and more specific geographic origin (such as forest and savannah elephants). African and Asian elephant ivory can only be distinguished with DNA analysis. Stable isotope analysis is another forensic method applied to ivory that provides information about the habitat in which the elephant lived. Peptide mass fingerprinting is an emerging technique that identifies proteins (like ivory and bone) and requires a much smaller sample than DNA analysis.
Radiocarbon dating (or carbon-14 dating) can be used to determine the age of ivory. This method, however, only identifies when the ivory formed; the date of harvest may be estimated only if the sample is from the base or root area of the tusk. Elephants can live up to 60 years, and their tusks grow throughout their lives with the tip remaining the oldest part. Therefore, the location of the sample on the tusk may greatly affect the dating results. Radiocarbon dating in combination with DNA analysis has been used to identify the age and geographic source of ivory that is illegally confiscated in order to track the ivory trade and improve efforts to stop it.
—Akan proverb from Ghana references how a wise leader is a good listener and hears the voices of his subjects.
Ivory is porous and vulnerable to changes in the environment; it is particularly reactive to humidity and temperature fluctuations. In low relative humidity (RH) ivory can lose moisture, shrink, crack, and delaminate (or separates into layers), while at a high RH ivory is susceptible to swelling and warping. Similar dimensional changes occur when ivory is exposed to temperature fluctuations, with rapid and extreme changes causing the most damage. Like wood, ivory is prone to cracking along its natural grain, which is created during ivory formation and growth on the elephant.
Ivory naturally darkens or develops a “patina” as it ages. Exposure to light, however, can cause bleaching. Because ivory is so porous, it is susceptible to staining, which may be caused by contact with oils from skin, dust, dirt, previously applied coatings (such as shellac that has yellowed), corroding metals (such as copper with green corrosion), and other colored materials. Therefore, it is best to wear gloves or thoroughly wash hands before handling ivory. Water and other cleaning solutions can damage ivory, so wet cleaning is not advised.
Ivory should be stored in a stable environment with moderate temperature and humidity (ideally 70°F and 45-55% RH). Protection from light, dust, and dirt is also advised. Materials used to store the ivory should be chemically stable; for example, avoid rubber-based materials which can yellow and stain ivory. Instead, polyethylene or polypropylene foam and sheeting can be used to line shelves and support objects in storage. Another option is to first wrap ivory with acid-free tissue or washed muslin fabric and then store it in sealed plastic bags made of polyethylene (such as Ziplock-style bags). If the ivory needs cleaning or repair, a professional art conservator should be consulted. Art conservators are highly trained in the care, preservation, and appropriate restoration of art and artifacts.Selected bibliography
Baker, Barry W., Rachel L. Jacobs, Mary-Jacque Mann, Edgard O. Espinoza, and Giavanna Grein. CITES Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes (4th Edition, Allan, C. (ed.)), World Wildlife Fund, 2020. https://cites.org/sites/default/files/ID_Manuals/R8_IvoryGuide_07162020_low-res.pdf
Bassani, Ezio, and William B. Fagg. Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory. Edited by Susan Vogel. New York: The Center for African Art, 1988.
“The Care and Handling of Ivory Objects.” Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, https://www.si.edu/mci/english/learn_more/taking_care/ivory.html.
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), www.cites.org
Fears, Darryl. “Antique dealers say the new federal ivory ban will cost owners up to $12 billion.” The Washington Post. June 2, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/06/02/its-final-selling-just-about-any-item-containing-elephant-ivory-is-a-crime-in-the-u-s/?utm_term=.aea0ecf4ebf8.
Fraser, John, editor. Ivory [Special issue]. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(1). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/21516952/61/1.
Articles of particular interest within this journal:
“Historical Ivory Arts and the Protection of Contemporary Wildlife,” by Johnetta Betsch Cole.
“An Art Conservation Perspective: Saving the African Elephant and Ivory Cultural Heritage” by Terry Drayman-Weisser and Stephanie E. Hornbeck.
Gabrielsen, Paul. “Tracing the Ivory Trail: Clues in Poached Ivory Yield Ages and Locations of Origin.” UNews. The University of Utah. 7 November 2016, https://unews.utah.edu/tracing-the-ivory-trail/.
“Ivory.” Smithsonian Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support. https://interdisciplinary.si.edu/collaboration-highlights/ivory/
Kenya Wildlife Service. 2018. http://www.kws.go.ke.
Knights, Peter. “China Bans Ivory: Why 2018 Is the Year Of the Elephant.” Forbes. 3 January 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/insideasia/2018/01/05/china-bans-ivory-why-2018-is-the-year-of-the-elephant/#1e1fc7161e93.
Krzyszkowska, Olga. Ivory and Related Materials: An Illustrated Guide. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1990.
Pendersen, Maggie C. Gem and Ornamental Materials of Organic Origin. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth Heinemann, 2004.
Penniman, T.K. Pictures of Ivory and Other Animal Teeth, Bone, and Antler. 2nd printing. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1984.
Riedel, Jonathan. “Understanding Ivory Law.” Fitz Gibbon Law, LLC. 29 November 2016. http://fitzgibbonlaw.com/understanding-ivory-law/#_edn3.
Rosen, Rebecca J. “What is it about elephant’s tusks that make them so valuable?” The Atlantic. 6 September 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/09/what-is-it-about-an-elephants-tusks-that-make-them-so-valuable/262021/.
Ross, Doran H., editor. Elephant: The Animal and its Ivory in African Culture. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992.
Schames, Joseph and Mayer Schames. “Law and the Identification of Ivory in Tribal Art.” Tribal Art, no. 80 (Summer 2016): 132–141.
Starkey, N. “Measuring Carbon Age in Ivory Could Help Combat Poaching, Study Shows.” The Guardian. 2 July 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/02/carbon-ivory-combat-poaching.
United States Fish and Wildlife Service, www.fws.gov
____“African Elephants.” https://www.fws.gov/international/animals/african-elephants.html
____“Revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Special Rule for the African Elephant: Questions and Answers.” 6 June 2016. https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/questions-and-answers-african-elephant-4d-final-rule.pdf.
____“What Can I Do With My Ivory? Ivory Ban Questions and Answers.” https://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/ivory-ban-questions-and-answers.html.
Wildlife Conservation Society. “Ivory Ban Questions.” https://www.wcs.org/get-involved/us-ivory-ban-questions.
____“The U.S. Ivory Ban: The Charge to Ban Ivory.” 1 June 2016. https://www.wcs.org/wildcards/posts/the-u-s-ivory-ban.
World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org.
____“African Elephant.” https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/african-elephant.PUBLISHED