Historic and contemporary issues around the ivory trade.

News | Posted on Thursday 14 March 2024

Molly Brown draws on sources from across the UK, Africa and Asia to highlight the role that demand has played in forming our values towards ivory and elephants.

Ivory piano keys on a Blüthner grand piano at Brodie Castle. Photo by Molly Brown.
Ivory piano keys on a Blüthner grand piano at Brodie Castle. Photo by Molly Brown.

Molly helped curate an exhibition at National Trust Scotland’s Brodie Castle and this blog formed part of that display. Using examples from the Castle, she explores historic and contemporary issues around the subject of the ivory trade.

Elephant ivory has fundamentally shaped societies, cultures and economies throughout human history. As a material product, it represents the commodification of one of the most iconic and loved animals on Earth. This makes ivory an extremely complicated subject, at times intensely controversial and often highly emotive and publicised.

Many National Trust for Scotland properties contain objects that have been either made from or decorated with, ivory. In this article, I have taken examples from Brodie Castle to illustrate ivory demand in its many forms as well as the changes in demand for ivory.

When highlighting ivory items, we can provide visitors with a route to thinking about the different values put on ivory in the past, and how we can think about future elephant conservation practices that target ivory consumers.

National Trust for Scotland site Brodie Castle. Photo by Molly Brown.

What is ivory?

Ivory is the teeth or tusks from mammals such as elephants, mammoths, hippopotamuses, warthogs, narwhals and sperm whales. Since antiquity to the modern day, ivory tusks and processed ivory objects have held a unique place in the material culture of human development. As an example, the American Yankee whalers of the 1800s transformed the ancient art form of scrimshaw (sketching designs onto whale teeth or bone) into a major artistic and tooling industry.

Centuries ago, when Asian elephants were populous across their range, ivory was commonly harvested from male Asian elephants. However, only male Asian elephants have tusks, which are smaller than African elephant tusks. In addition, both male and female African elephants have tusks, and so it became more profitable to source ivory from Africa. In some southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Lao PDR and Thailand, elephants’ economic value was primarily derived from their centuries-long use in the agricultural industry.

Ivory letter opener located at Brodie Castle. Photo by Molly Brown.

Threats to elephants

Today, we know that the illegal killing of African elephants for their ivory led to significant population declines, particularly around 10 years ago. This is a major environmental concern as elephants are a keystone species and form an essential part of African biodiversity heritage. Elephants enable other species to coexist and survive by providing services that maintain a well-balanced ecosystem – they carve pathways by pushing down trees and trampling dense grasslands, they create waterholes in dry riverbeds, they disperse seeds in their dung, plus much more. Protecting vulnerable African elephant populations, in regions such as West and Central Africa, is an important route to improving ecosystem health and realising biodiversity goals.

There are two extant species of elephant found in Africa: African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana). Their habitat varies widely across African countries but they are largely found in protected areas today, ranging from the deserts of Namibia to the tropical dense rainforests of the Republic of the Congo. Interestingly, the tusks of the two species have different characteristics – in size, density and colouring – which can change their market value.

Based on seizure records, the majority of ivory trafficking out of Africa is destined for East Asia, facilitated by organised criminal syndicates. Improving law enforcement capacities, global judicial co-operation and political will are some of the most important routes to reducing ivory poaching. However, these approaches need to be supported by efforts that will lead to long-term changes in the behaviour, attitude and beliefs of ivory consumers to manage demand levels so they do not threaten elephant populations.

It is important to recognise that not all African elephants are vulnerable to ivory poaching. Elephant populations are heavily threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, climate-change-induced extreme weather events (such as more intense and more frequent droughts and flooding) and increasing human/elephant conflict. The impacts of reduced space and resource availability disproportionately affect the people living closest to elephant populations. Elephant conservation efforts have long dismissed the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities in Africa, who have co-existed with elephants for millennia. Without conservation strategies that meaningfully engage African people, elephant conservation efforts are likely to perpetuate violent colonial conservation practices.

King chess piece made of ivory located at Brodie Castle. Photo by Molly Brown.

Slave trade connections

There are hundreds of records that indicate the ivory trade flourished in antiquity, when enslaved people were used to facilitate ivory acquisition and processing. The ancient Hebrews traded ivory with Assyria, a great Mesopotamian kingdom of the ancient Middle East (2600–1364BC), and from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) ivory-laden cargoes drifted down the Nile. One of the ancient seven wonders of the world, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, used ivory to resemble Zeus’s flesh, highlighting the deep-seated value of ivory.

Fast-forwarding to the 16th century, colonisers from Spain and Portugal began to transform Africa through the enslavement of African people. Britain and France soon followed and dominated the transatlantic slave trade by the mid-16th century. Ivory extracted from West Africa was rapidly commercialised by the Portuguese and French after centuries of Arab trade in ivory across the Indian Ocean. European slavers harvested ivory primarily from the western coastal regions and worked their way into the ‘interior’ of Africa. They exported ivory through coastal ports to reach destinations across Britain, its Empire and throughout Europe.

The entangling of the transatlantic slave trade and ivory deepened when European slavers started to use enslaved Africans as porters. The journeys to harvest and deliver ivory were so treacherous that many enslaved porters died along the way; the porters who survived the journey were then sold. Records indicate that women were sometimes forced to leave their children behind to ensure the successful delivery of ivory. Some records claim that for every five tusks exported, an enslaved African lost their life; some estimate that it was far higher.

Scottish ivory hunters

Scottish hunters had a major influence on African ivory exports. The Scottish hunter Walter Bell, known as ‘Karamojo Bell’, born c1880 in Edinburgh, developed a distinct method for shooting large elephants, known as the ‘Bell Shot’. By the time of his retirement in the 1930s, he had used this method to kill over a thousand elephants. John A Hunter, another famous Scottish hunter and safari guide in Kenya, took celebrities and international aristocrats on elephant hunts up to the 1950s. Once he was bored with guiding, he turned to hunting solely for ivory. Hunter benefitted from the colonial government’s complete control of all ivory exports at this time, which deemed his hunting legal. By contrast, ivory hunted by Indigenous Africans, much of which was destined for India, went underground as this activity was considered poaching and therefore illegal.

One of the world’s leading ivory experts, Esmond Bradley Martin, found that during the colonial era nearly 44,000 African elephants were killed annually (between 1850 and 1914), totalling approximately 2.8 million elephants. The transatlantic slave trade and the colonial exploitation of Africa, along with the development of automatic weaponry and the growth of industrialisation, facilitated the mass slaughter of Africa’s elephants. The international trade in ivory stripped away the deep cultural, spiritual, social and environmental values ivory and elephants had symbolised in Africa’s history.

From the mundane to the extraordinary

Ivory has appeared in every culture and period in the most mundane and the most exquisite objects. Objects seen in the Brodie collection – such as the children’s game ‘Spellicans’, the fly whisk and small etui boxes (a type of sewing box) – all show ordinary, daily uses of ivory objects. The ivory seems plain and could have been replaced with other natural or synthetic materials. This contrasts with the use of ivory in other contexts, such as for extraordinarily detailed and significant objects like major historic artworks, thrones and royal regalia. The use of ivory in these everyday items is an interesting insight into the human perception of ivory.

Despite the mass industrialisation of ivory during the colonial era, ivory’s social value did not heavily depreciate. This is likely due to elephants maintaining an ‘out-of-reach’ status to most European and Asian consumers – it remained an exotic material and continued to signify luxury through its rarity.

As tools developed that enabled greater precision, such as in the shipping or medical industries, ivory was seen as the perfect material in which to carve out small detailing for these instruments. The use of ivory as a tooling material is regarded very differently when it is used as an artistic medium. African masks, Flemish Renaissance statues and Chinese puzzle balls, all made of ivory, hold different artistic and aesthetic values to different communities.

Ivory has also long been used in both religious and secular art – its white colour makes it a symbol of purity and perfection. The rarity of ivory brings connotations of luxury, which can be an indicator of the devoutness of a follower if ivory were gifted to a religious association or leader. Today, the use of ivory in Buddhist iconography on amulets remains prevalent in Thailand’s illegal ivory markets.

Ivory aide memoire (dance cards) located at Brodie Castle. Photo by Molly Brown.

Chinese ivory heritage

Ancient China

Ivory carving is a long-held traditional art form in China. Records of Chinese use of ivory date as far back as the beginning of the Han dynasty (206BC–AD220). At this time, ivory would have been sourced from Asian elephants. Around the world, ivory has been recognised as a symbol for status, wealth, purity and often in feminine, sensual contexts – this was no different in Ancient China. In an Ancient Chinese record, a Chinese woman was described as an angelic goddess whilst her hair is adorned with an ivory comb, connecting ivory and femininity once again.

During the Roman Empire, there was evidenced ivory trade in governmental envoys to China. Demand grew so much that by the 9th century, Canton (now Guangzhou) had dedicated trade routes with Arabian traders extracting ivory from North and East Africa, to supply Chinese demand.

Peak demand

Ivory reached its peak popularity during the Ming (1369–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties among the upper-class Chinese scholarly circles. Ivory was a material reserved for the elite; the average Chinese citizen would not have commonly encountered ivory products. Consequently, it was the export market that dominated China’s ivory industry for centuries, since domestic interest was restricted to the elite literati. The Chinese ivory objects manufactured were largely designed for foreign traders, and a thriving export market existed between China and the West.

Export market

By the early 20th century, Chinese ivory exports were dwindling and stocks in China were hard to come by. However, the Chinese economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s led to an unforeseen surge in Chinese demand for ivory, shifting the main market demand from Japan to the much larger potential market of the Chinese middle class.

Chinese ivory was especially valued for the skill of the carving, compared to European, American and African styles. Chinese ivory carving was typically a generational family business. To become a master ivory carver took decades of practice under the guidance of elder family members. The detail achieved in China was unlike anything ever achieved in the West or Africa for ivory. Canton ‘puzzle balls’ were regional specialities and became a symbol for quality ivory craftsmanship. The northern Chinese ivory market specialised in intricate landscape carvings, usually on whole tusks, and supplied both an international and domestic market.

Many of the pieces in the Brodie exhibition are Chinese exports made for the European market to cater to the West’s taste for exotic, ‘oriental’ items.

Lid of an ivory box made for the Chinese export market c. 19th century. Photo by Molly Brown.

Ivory substitutes

Many substitutes for ivory have existed throughout history due to the costs of obtaining real ivory. The most common natural substitutes, which are both honestly and fraudulently used as ivory replicas, include bone, shell, vegetable ivory (such as tagua nuts) and helmeted hornbill (casque ivory). In more recent times, synthetic materials have prevailed as the most widely adopted ivory substitute for mass-produced products, with the development of polyester-based plastics. Other synthetic materials, such as celluloid, Ivorite and Ivoreen, have been largely replaced by resin-based plastic materials, which more accurately mimic the unique structural characteristics of elephant ivory.

Ivory for piano keys

Throughout the 19th century, European prosperity spurred significant interest in culture and the arts. Pianos were a key emblem of social status by the first half of the 19th century. They signified the domestication of the Victorian parlour and were inextricably tied to perceptions of ‘ideal’ femininity. At this time, only middle- and upper-class girls received music education. The household ownership of a piano, and the capacity of the women of the house (particularly unmarried daughters) to play the piano, signified much more than simply wealth. Domestic music became a form of social and cultural capital as well.

‘Tickling the ivories’ remains a widely understood phrase today, meaning to play the piano. Ivory keys were phased out of use in the 1950s due to the soaring costs of ivory, but an increasing understanding of the plight of African elephants played a small part in the shift to the use of synthetic ivory keys.

There is a small community, primarily of musicians, today who believe that the tonality of ivory is unmistakable and irreplaceable with synthetic alternatives. This extends to instruments such as the Japanese koto and the Northumbrian bagpipes, where musicians have argued that without ivory components there is a loss of cultural heritage.

How do we manage and reduce demand for ivory?

Marketing campaigns are the main approach used today to directly dissuade ivory consumers from buying or gifting ivory products. The most effective campaigns understand and address the deep-seated values that constitute the desire for ivory. This requires cultural nuance in order to genuinely affect the consumer behaviours.

However, these campaigns require a complementary supportive environment. We see this today in China through the increased level of environmental education paired with policy changes that limit (and potentially deter) consumption to support long-term generational change. Past campaigns that aimed to reduce demand adopted less effective, one-size-fits-all approaches. More recently, behaviour change approaches developed from the fields of marketing, psychology, sociology and economics – which are used to influence challenging behaviours such as tobacco cessation and vaccine hesitancy in the field of public health – are becoming more routinely adopted to tackle illegal and unsustainable wildlife demand. This field is now known as ‘social marketing’ – marketing techniques used for social good.

The ivory collection found at Brodie Castle provides a small insight into the desire for ivory around the world. We see ivory in its many shapes and forms and can start to recognise the wide variety of uses and audiences that different ivory products have had over the centuries. Through this collection, the challenges associated with addressing cultural, social, historic, financial, aesthetic and personal values embedded into ivory products become apparent. Although not identical, many of these values can be found to some degree in ivory consumers’ rationale for continuing to purchase ivory today. It is only through better understanding of these connections that social marketing campaigns can be effective in influencing ivory consumer behaviour.