What’s the fascination with ivory? To people who grew up knowing about its horrific origins, it is difficult to view the valuable material with anything other than contempt for those who own it. Yet, it has a firm legacy that continues to contribute towards the slaughtering of elephants around the world. A useful way of understanding peoples’ fascination with ivory is by comparing it with diamonds, another mineral with little useful value but plenty lot of cultural significance.
However, while our insatiable desire for diamonds is the result of an exceptionally clever marketing campaign from DeBeers in the early twentieth century, humanity’s love of ivory dates back millennia. Beautiful ivory carvings have been discovered from around the sixth millennium BCE.
But ivory has uses beyond the ornamental; its unique combination of qualities makes it suitable for a number of different things. It is hard and doesn’t splinter, yet it carves easily, so it is unsurprising that artifacts have been recovered with uses as diverse as spear tips and combs.
Ivory was plastic before plastic was plastic; it was, back before illegal poaching of elephants had decimated their population, easy to get a hold of. However, it is easy to forget, while we admire the beautiful objects created from ivory, the vividly ugly truth that lies behind them.
Elephants are poisoned or shot by the hundreds, their faces then sawed off, and their horns hacked away from their skulls. Poachers go for the animals with the biggest horns, which means that matriarchs are the most vulnerable, as their groups are easier to spot rather than males living in solitude. Often, the youngest elephants are killed alongside their mothers. The damage that this causes to the intricate social network of elephant communities is still being researched.
Are you convinced yet? No?
Take a look at the violence that gives birth to ivory ornaments.