Ivory's status as a luxury item and its unique properties as a carving material make it difficult to replace, according to George Wittemeyer of Colorado State University and co-author of an article in Nature which discussed how rising prices for ivory are endangering Africa's elephants.
"Substitutes supposedly do not have the integrity of true ivory," Wittemeyer said. "Part of this has to do the growth pattern of ivory, called Schreger lines, which facilitates carving at any angle. So it seems the uniqueness of the material as a carving substrate, its beauty and its historic significance in terms of a rarity and prestige all contribute to the demand."
Mammoth ivory, from the extinct pachyderms of the north, is available as a replacement for ivory from living species. Unfortunately, the color and density of mammoth ivory don't match that of elephant ivory, noted Wittemeyer.
Even flooding the market with fake ivory would not help to reduce pressure on living elephants, Wittemeyer said. The prestige and appearance of the real article make consumers demand genuine ivory.
In China, the demand for animal parts as treatments for erectile dysfunction was reduced by the introduction of pharmaceuticals such as Viagra. Researchers suggested this may have had to do with the immediate and observable functioning of the drug.
Since imitation ivory does not meet the same demand for luxury and conspicuous consumption as real ivory, it seems unlikely that a synthetic will take the place of real ivory unless public attitudes change.
Just as a popular movement against the use of animal fur in fashion led to designers reducing or replacing fur in their clothing lines, China's growing environmental movement could make elephant ivory gauche and unfashionable, according to Kineta Hung, associate professor of communications studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Until that movement is developed, smugglers will run the black market for white ivory.
Cristobal Garcia, a Catholic priest, is being investigated by Filipino authorities after he explained how to smuggle ivory figurines out of the Philippines in the current issue of National Geographic, reported the Washington Post.
Garcia told National Geographic that ketchup-coated underpants were a common means of sneaking out small items. He also said false documents could be obtained from the National Museum of the Philippines, which would declare an ivory piece to be an antique. Or an ivory carver could issue a certificate claiming the item was made before the 1990 ban on international ivory trading was instituted.
Despite the ban, ivory trafficking is flourishing. Poaching is at its highest level since detailed record keeping began and 2011 broke the record for most illegal ivory ever seized, at 38.8 tons or the equivalent of 4,000 elephants, reported the New York Times. The luxury market in Asia's burgeoning economy is largely driving the demand.
IMAGE: An antique pendant made from ivory at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (American, Wikimedia Commons)