Posted in Africa, Elephants, Extinction, Jabu, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Ivory, Part One

Jabu's tusk
An African elephant’s tusk

Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible.  King Solomon had one, covered with gold.  Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow.  Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles.  Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.

In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves.  By the 1980s, more than 300 elephants a day were slaughtered for their ivory, nearly 100,000 per year.

In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.

Year after year tuskless elephants are born.

Both male and female African elephants grow tusks – the largest upper incisors on this planet.  Tusks are defined as long teeth protruding beyond the mouth growing usually, but not always, in pairs.  Most tusks are enlarged canines, such as those of warthogs, wild boars, hippopotamus and walruses.  Enlarged canines in the myriad species of cats and dogs are called fangs.

Elephants and narwhal whales have incisor tusks.  The narwhal’s single tusk is a left front incisor that grows in a straight spiral.  Found mostly in males, narwhal tusks are believed to be the origin of unicorn legends.  Oddly enough, narwhals with two tusks are usually female.

By the time Jabu is sixty, his tusks could theoretically reach a length of 18 to 20 feet.  But in reality – if he does reach sixty – they will be much shorter, due to the wear and tear of everyday use.

Tusks on bull elephants can weigh seven times that of those on cows.  The biggest pair of tusks on record weighed 460 pounds, taken from an old bull killed in 1897 near Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.

The longest tusks ever found came from an elephant shot in the Congo in 1907.  Its right tusk was 11.4 feet long; it’s left tusk 11 feet.

Such extraordinarily enormous tusks are a genetic trait, much the same as red hair is a genetic trait.  Over the centuries poachers and hunters have always targeted male elephants with the largest tusks.  As a result, the trait has disappeared from most elephant populations.

The same outcome would occur if redheads were systematically eliminated within family groups.   As their genes died out, the redheads among us would become extinct.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

15 thoughts on “Ivory, Part One

  1. this information is so interesting that I have pinched it to use as reading comprehension material with secondary school students! thank you for providing something well written, clear and not over long! Hopefully the message will also filter through that these precious animals must be protected.

    1. Hi Susan – Sorry for the late reply. I’m in the middle of moving, and of course I got the flu at the same time. I stayed with Doug & Sandi on four separate occasions – from one to two weeks at a time. I hope to go back next year. How long were you with the Abu herd? – Cheryl

      1. A fraction of that time Cheryl.. Only a few days but it was magical. They just had a new calf born about 3 months ago named Naledi. I would love to spend time with The Groves and the herd. What an amazing experience you must have had.

      2. Yes, it was. I did a lot of “tourist herding,” since people get so enraptured walking with the elephants and being so close to them that they forget camera bags, hats, etc. Constantly setting things down and walking off. Although the male, Jabu, shows occasional interest in Thembi, she has no interest in him, not having learnt all that sort of stuff.

  2. Hey! I was just browsing blogs and I came across yours! The elephant is the mascot for my 6 month backpacking trip on the Appalachian trail! That is so cool how much info you have here! Just go to my website and look at my front picture hahaha! Also i did a post last week that is titled “all about the elephant” check it out and let me know what you think!

    1. Really? Wow, I was just picking redheads out of the melting pot, rather than long noses or freckles. Where did you get that info – I’d be very interested. And yes, my prayers are obviously with yours.

      1. I am a natural red head so I’m interested. Some scientist say 100 years, some say 50. Only 2% of the world are naturals. Did you know red heads don’t go gray? They go blonde and then white.

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