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The Other Ivory

How a South American tree could help save African elephants

Ivory Nut Tree

Species in the genus Phytelephas, native to South America, are the most important sources of vegetable ivory

“…the demand for polished ivory has pushed the world’s largest living land animal to the brink of extinction. Across the Atlantic Ocean, in a land that was once connected to the African continent, another kind of massacre is happening to the rain forest. In Central and South America this destruction amounts to about fifty acres per minute, an area roughly the size of West Virginia each year. Slash-and-burn agriculture is directly responsible for the extermination of hundreds of plant and animal species each year, largely for plantations of exportable products such as fast-growing pines, rubber, bananas, coffee, and cattle. However, there is a glimmer of hope in this modern day battlefield of people against nature: A lovely Amazonian palm might help to save its rain forest relatives and the African elephant.”

—Wayne P. Armstrong, Wayne’s Word: An Online Textbook of Natural History 

 

Most people are horrified by the elephant slaughter currently taking place in Africa, and would never purchase items made from black-market elephant tusks. We prefer our elephants live, tusks intact. As it happens, there are a number of inexpensive alternatives to ivory, some essentially indistinguishable from the real thing. A quick search on eBay (which no longer lists items made from real ivory) turns up a number of items, new and old, made of alternative, ivory-like materials.

Tagua nuts

Tagua nuts, aka Ivory Nut fruit

One of those alternatives is vegetable ivory from tagua nuts, the fruit of the Ivory Nut palm (Phytelephas marcocarpa), a tropical tree that grows wild in the Amazon Basin of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. The nuts contain hemicellulose, a substance that is extremely hard and dense when it is dried, which can be carved, stained, and polished just like elephant ivory.

There is one problem with using tagua nuts as an alternative source of ivory: their size. The nuts average two inches (5 cm) in length, which limits the size of articles that can easily be made from them. That’s not a deal-breaker, as it turns out—milled tagua nuts can be fused with modern bonding cements under heat and pressure into a larger, solid mass that can then be carved and polished.

Vegetable ivory from tagua nuts has been used for buttons, chess pieces, dice, sewing notions, umbrella handles, billiard balls, and scrimshaw arts since mid-19th century. In the 1950s, plastics replaced vegetable ivory in many products, although some clothing manufacturers continue to use tagua buttons today.

Vegetable Ivory

Vegetable ivory has been used for buttons, dice, and even carvings of elephants

On the Wayne’s Word website, Wayne Armstrong notes that Ivory Nut palms are a renewable resource: a single female tree may produce up to 50 pounds of nuts year after year, roughly the amount of ivory in an average African elephant tusk.

The bad news is that because there is little demand for vegetable ivory today, the rain forests where Ivory Nut palms thrive are endangered by ongoing commercial development and cattle ranching. So the trees that could help save Africa’s elephants might disappear entirely in the next few decades, just like the elephants themselves.