Over 30,000 elephants are killed each year globally for their tusks. The demand comes primarily from Asian markets where they are believed to possess medicinal properties.
An elephant’s tusks are its crowning glory and unfortunately, they’ve held the collective imagination of the world’s poachers for decades. While we do know that they are prized for their appearance, texture and medicinal properties, there are some facts about elephant tusks that scientists have recently discovered.
Let’s take a look at what they are.
5 lesser known facts about elephant tusks
- Tusks are actually hollow teeth
An elephant’s tusks are elongated upper incisors made from dentine and coated with enamel-like cementum. This layer is usually called as the ‘bark’, as it gives the tusk its texture. When making ivory products, carvers leave the bark intact to give the carving a superior appearance.
The root of the tusks is embedded in the elephant’s skull and consists of nerve endings and pulp. This means an elephant experiences sensations like pain through the tusks when uprooting vegetation or carrying loads.
One-third of the tusks are actually hollow and the rest is filled with inorganic material and collagen, giving it the smooth shape and structure it has.
- Elephants are right/left tusked
Humans are either right or left-handed. Similarly, elephants are either right/left tusked. What does this mean?
Well, research shows that elephants prefer using one tusk over the other; and they use a single tusk (right/left) extensively to dig up vegetation and to attack predators. This tusk which elephants use extensively is called the ‘Master Tusk’.
If the master tusk gets damaged or breaks off due to extensive use, it will continue to grow, so long as the damage/breakage is not at the root. A tusk that breaks-off at the root does not regenerate and leads to the elephant developing a life-threating infection.
- Most tuskers today have lost the ‘big tusk’ gene
Tusk size is a matter of genetics and when there are more male elephants with big tusks, the chances of the big tusk gene getting passed on to the offspring is higher. But, severe poaching and big game hunting have affected the number of big tuskers available in the wild.
When this happens, females mate with males having smaller tusks and in turn pass on the small tusk gene to their offspring. If the female herself is tuskless, chances of having a tuskless offspring increase.
An example is the poaching of a big tusker in Africa, who had the largest recorded tusk in the world measuring 138 inches long and weighing 314 pounds (over 140 kg). Loss of big tuskers like this, thins out the herd, leaving behind only those males with short and thin tusks.
This is why today; the majority of elephants have smaller tusks. If poaching and big game hunting aren’t curbed soon, we may soon find that no big tuskers exist in the future.
- Elephant calves have milk tusks
Just like baby humans with temporary milk teeth, baby elephants start out with temporary tusks at birth. These tusks remain for a year and are replaced by permanent ones which last the elephant’s lifetime.
An important thing to note is that both the male and female African elephants are born with tusks, although the ones on females are shorter than the ones on males. Surprisingly, in their Asian counterparts, about 50% of the females have short tusks called ‘tushes’, while only a handful of males have tusks.
- Elephant ivory costs $1500 and upwards on the black market
Hairpins, combs, needles, buttons, chopsticks, piano keys, billiards balls, door handles…the list of items that can be made using elephant ivory is endless. Ivory is also used to carve ornate art pieces, which are sold to the highest bidder on the black market. In Asia, elephant ivory is also powdered and used in traditional medicine as pain relievers and Viagra.
Ivory has always been a durable, investment-worthy commodity, fetching as high as $2,100 per kilo of raw ivory. But thankfully, with the Chinese (the largest ivory consumers in the world) banning ivory trade, there’s been a reduction in demand for ivory. Following China’s example, the United States is calling for a worldwide ban on ivory sales.
With the bans coming into effect, today a kilo of ivory costs just $500. 2018 is certainly turning out to be the Year of the Elephant