As countries increasingly crack down on the ivory trade, help can be found in the unlikeliest of places — or in this case, pieces. The South American tagua seed is hard, easily carved, easily dyed, ivory-textured, and ivory-white, making it a very close imitation of elephant ivory¹. The genus of palms that produce tagua is Phytelephas — elephant plant — in recognition of the seed’s similarities to elephant ivory; the seeds themselves are often referred to as “vegetable ivory.”
Up until the 20th century vegetable ivory was quite common, used for chess pieces, billiard balls, dice, and even US military uniform buttons². But with the rise of plastic synthetics in the 1950s came the fall of tagua². Now as people grow more aware of the environmental and moral cost of animal ivory, we may increasingly turn to vegetable ivory as a substitute once again. Today you can find tagua buttons on clothes from companies like Patagonia and Gap², buy tagua jewelry in stores, request hand-carvings on Etsy, and order seeds in bulk online.
Tagua is a great ivory substitute not only because of its uncanny similarities, but because tagua is a sustainable, renewable resource. In one year, a palm can produce an amount of vegetable ivory equivalent to the ivory from an adult African elephant tusk². And the palm will continue to produce new seeds year after year, while elephants are killed for just one pair of tusks.
“The problem is the size,” forest elephant expert Andrea Turkalo says³. And indeed, at a maximum length of 9 cm (3.5 inches), vegetable ivory is “not very big.”³ It won’t be taking the place of gargantuan, carved elephant tusks anytime soon.
Andrea has worked directly with vegetable ivory, collecting tagua’s African counterpart, raffia seeds, from palms near her old home base in Central African Republic. She helped her Ba’aka employees make jewelry by drilling holes in the seeds for chains and strings. Andrea hopes the money from making these sustainable crafts can compete with the economic appeal of elephant poaching.
“I think it could help,” she says of vegetable ivory. “I don’t know if it could really help take the pressure off elephants, but it’s a way people can make money.”
As Andrea suggests, tagua will not single-handedly bring about the end of ivory poaching. Another issue is that vegetable ivory does not seem to have the same cultural or socio-economic significance of real elephant ivory. Part of ivory’s seductive appeal is its rarity, conveying an “image of wealth and social status”⁴ — an image cheap and plentiful vegetable ivory doesn’t really have. But hopefully, tagua’s affordability, humble beauty, and non-violent procurement will overcome ivory’s allure, especially as more and more people realize the death (both human and elephant) involved in ivory poaching. And good news is on the horizon: a majority of people in Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Thailand, and the US — the world’s top five ivory-consuming countries — are concerned about elephant conservation and support the idea of a sales ban⁴. Tagua could certainly be a key part of the struggle to reduce ivory demand, and it does bear a special image of its own: a sustainable, peaceful one.
- Bolongaro, Kait. “How an obscure seed is helping save the elephant.” BBC News. March 23, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-39333386
- Amstrong, Wayne. “Vegetable Ivory: Saving Elephants & the Rain Forest.” Wayne’s Word. Updated July 12, 2010. http://waynesword.palomar.edu/pljan99.htm
- Andrea Turkalo, interview by Raina Kamrat, July 27, 2017.
- National Geographic. 2015. “Who Buys Ivory? You’d be Surprised”. Published August 12. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150812-elephant-ivory-demand-wildlife-trafficking-china-world/