Ivory doesn't just exist on an elephant's or a rhino's face. There are actually many sources of ivory in nature, although not all of them are sustainable or responsible choices. This post can help guide you if you really like ivory but, like me, wish to save animals for being slaughtered.
What is Ivory?
Ivory is, at its basic form, a tooth. It's a tooth found either inside an animal's mouth or growing somewhere on its face in the form of a tusk, but it all serves a basic purpose: to be able to grind up and crush food or to stab or dig things to get food. Simply put, ivory teeth are there to help the animal survive.
In fact, ivory in and of itself isn't valuable. After all, what use do humans really have for animal teeth, apart from stringing them on a necklace? Ivory really has no practical purpose for humans; it's just valuable to us because it looks pretty. But if you're going to own ivory, you need to know which forms are responsible (do not kill animal species) and which forms are sustainable (have a neutral or almost-neutral effect on the environment as a whole).
Unsustainable and Irresponsible Ivory
Any ivory that comes from a living animal is not sustainable, nor is it responsible. While in former times ivory could be obtained from already-dead species, therefore not harming their populations, the introduction of this ivory into the market has created such a demand that it's impossible to save a species and use its ivory parts.
"In my heart I can't have live ivory sources like elephants and walruses and narwhals killed for their tusks."
Even if one species has not yet suffered from the ivory craze, the risk of extinction is too great; economics and time have shown us that the trade of any animal's ivory will push it to extinction. These animals possess ivory teeth or tusks, and therefore are irresponsible forms of ivory: elephants (all species), rhino (all African species), walrus, narwhal, sperm whale, hippo, elk, warthog and helmeted hornbill.
While you may think this takes out any form of ivory, this is untrue. Three forms still remain, which are largely sustainable and much more responsible.
Sustainable and Responsible Ivory
Believe it or not, ivory can come in the form of a vegetable. The most common form comes from the seeds of the ivory-nut palm, aptly dubbed the "elephant plant." This tropical plant is found in the rainforests of Ecuador and produces solid seeds about the size of a hen's egg, which can be carved just like an elephant tusk. In fact, many of the small objects, like buttons, that are made from elephant tusks are also carved from this plant.
Synthetic ivory is another sustainable source. Because ivory is just a chemical compound very similar to our fingernails, it can be replicated in the lab, and can in fact be a purer form of ivory. Ivory found in nature has patterns, which some find attractive, but ivory made in a lab will not contain those marks. In fact, one professor of Chemistry in Arizona wrote an opinion piece about turning to synthetic ivory sources to save animals species.
The last form of responsible ivory is fossil ivory. This comes from fossil mammoths, mastodons and walruses. I list this last because I personally have mixed feelings about fossil ivory.
Fossil ivory is mostly coming out of Siberia, where hundreds of fossiled remains are being unearthed. The pros of buying fossil ivory are that the sources are long dead and therefore are not harming either living species or the environment.
But many, myself included, have concerns about the impact fossil ivory will have and has already had on the current market for elephant ivory. As Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens voiced, "We won't sell [it] in the gift shop, I can tell you that...I'm not a fan."
So I leave this last category open for your own interpretation. As you know, I'm not an ivory advocate, but I understand the desire for ivory parts or objects. So if you want something made of ivory, I urge you to choose a globally responsible and sustainable alternative to live animal sources.
Regardless of what options you choose, the purest form of ivory isn't found in an object. It's a color.
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.