Posted in Elephants, Nature

Ivory, Part Five

An Ivory Timeline: Netsuke

Popularized in the 17th century and still available today, netsuke (pronounced nets-keh) are small carved toggles used to attach pouches or boxes to the sashes of traditional Japanese robes worn by men, robes which had no pockets. Instead, “sagemono” (suspended objects) hung by cords from the belts of men’s kimono robes – the two holes in the netsuke at the end of the cords prevented them from slipping through the sash. Sagemono included cloth pouches, small woven baskets, or the most popular (and beautifully made) wooden boxes.   In this manner, Japanese men carried pipes, tobacco, writing implements, personal seals, medicine, or money. The combination of sagemona and netsuke were carefully considered before any well-dressed gentleman appeared in public.


Most popular during the Endo period (1615-1868), netsuke evolved from being strictly utilitarian objects made of shell and wood into intricately carved miniature sculptures with motifs inspired by animals, vegetables, fairy tales, daily life and mythological or religious figures. Most common are sculptural netsuke: compact three-dimensional figures carved into round shapes and one to three inches long. Other types include elongated carvings, hollow netsuke, masks, or trick netsuke with hidden or moving parts.

Materials used for carving netsuke include elephant and mammoth ivory, hardwoods, hippopotamus tusks, boar tusks, rhinoceros horn, antlers, and clay. Woven netsuke are made from cane. Other materials used are the casques (upper mandible) of the Helmeted hornbill; black coral; partially fossilized pine and cedar wood found under sections of Sendai, Japan; walrus tusks; sperm whale teeth; whale bone; bear’s teeth; tiger’s teeth; ivory palm nuts, walnuts; agate; the underground stems of bamboo; and ivorine – made from the dust created when carving ivory, which is mixed with clear resin and compressed.

Subjects portrayed by netsuke include nearly every aspect of Japanese culture, including people famous, anonymous, historical, fantastical, or real. Some netsuke depict entire scenes from mythology, literature, or history. Trades people were often carved in action – woodcutters cutting wood, fishermen catching fish. Other subjects included plants, especially beans and chestnuts, often carved in actual size; inanimate objects such as roof tiles, coins and tools; and abstract patterns. Shunga, or erotic netsuke, include humans or animals in acts of conjugation or contain subtle or symbolic sexual references. Animal subjects varied from zodiac signs to rats, from octopi to rabbits. One of my favorites is by Masatoshi: “Baku Monster Who Eats Nightmares.” It resembles a standing pregnant elephant with red eyes, dark curly hair, and biceps. A contemporary piece, it is made of ivory.Angry elephant

Nearly 50% of netsuke is ivory.

Netsuke: an art that requires death.

Between 1977 and 1987 Japan imported 2,832 tons of elephant ivory. Two-thirds of that amount was carved into Hankos, writing seals still required on official documents. One hundred and seventy tons of ivory went into the production of netsuke. In 1989, a ban was enacted on all ivory trade. Still, countries could apply for, and receive, ivory under special sales. In 2006, 2.8 tons of illegal ivory was seized in Osaka. Japan last received a legal import of ivory in 2009.In 2011, Japan’s biggest ivory dealer, Takaichi Co., was found to be trading in “unregistered” ivory. An estimated 572-1622 illegal tusks had been converted into hankos between 2005 and 2010 by the firm – 87% of their production.And nearly all Japanese people have figurines, anime or cartoon characters, many made from ivory, hanging from their mobile phones — a mass-produced, contemporary way keeping alive the nation’s netsuke tradition.

Netsuke. Small, beautiful sculptures made of calcium, made from the incisors of dead elephants.

Posted in Elephants, Nature, Photography

Ivory, Part Three

An Ivory Timeline:  from the Pharaohs to the Victorians

After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Europe lost both its sources of elephant ivory and even knowledge of the animal that bore it.  But the military campaigns by the Latin Catholic Church for the control of the Holy Lands (known as the Crusades) introduced luxury goods from the East, ivory among them.  With the conquering of Jerusalem in 1099, merchants began shipping ivory from East Africa along the Red Sea and from trans-Saharan routes to the Mediterranean and on to Venice, Genoa and Marseille.   By the middle of the 13th century, a huge carving industry was based in Paris, supplying mostly religious items.  The Sainte-Chapelle Virgin (sculpted between1260 – 1270) replicates the natural curve of an elephant’s tusk in its stance.  The Virgin leans on one leg while supporting the Christ child on her opposite hip while the baby Jesus reaches out with his left hand to an apple she is holding.  Her robe is finely decorated with gold.  It was a popular sculpture in the Sainte-Chapelle church, with many imitations.

The Sante-Chapelle Virgin
The Sante-Chapelle Virgin

After 1400, ivory began to appear in musical instruments (flutes, lutes, guitars and harpsichords) in scientific instruments (sundials, compasses and rulers) and in weaponry (matchlock inlays of nymphs and hunting scenes).  Traders swarmed the Ivory Coast (all of West Africa) the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Slave Coast (Togo, Benin and western Nigeria).  These three main trade items – slaves, ivory and gold – made immense fortunes for the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and French.  From 1699 to 1725, in a span of only twenty-five years, a quarter million tusks left West Africa, representing the deaths of 117,500 elephants.  Each tusk was transported out of the interior on the back of a slave.

Invented in 17th century Japan, a button-like fastener called a netsuke secured cords that held small containers on the outside of traditional garments.  Originally utilitarian in design, netsuke evolved into objects of extraordinary craftsmanship, made of materials that ranged from hardwood to porcelain to ivory, and depicting subjects as diverse as animals to mythological deities.   Some netsuke pieces are highly sexual in content and some depict entire scenes from history – all on a miniature object usually no bigger than an inch long.

Netsuke Tiger & Cub
Netsuke Tiger & Cub

Although traditional netsuke production ended in the late 1800s, modern craftsman produce work that still demands high prices.  And, as in ancient times, netsuke continues to be carved from boar tusks, rhinoceros horn, hippopotamus teeth, and elephant tusks.  Unfortunately, many reproductions are mass-produced carvings sold with fake staining and cross-hatching that would be found in ancient ivory pieces.  Anyone collecting netsuke should have considerable knowledge of the subject before they spend money, even on modern boxwood netsuke.  And, as always, modern ivory carvings of any sort, unless they are made from mammoth ivory, probably originate with illegal elephant ivory.

From the 1860s to the 1880s, an estimated 100,000 elephants per year were slaughtered for the ivory trade, a total of two million elephants in twenty years, as ivory became the plastic of the Victorian Age.

Kenyan male elephant
Kenyan male elephant
Posted in Nature, Photography, Writing

Ivory, Part Two

An Ivory Timeline: from Mammoths to Pharaohs

Around 40,000 years ago, someone took a fragment of a mammoth’s tusk and carved a small mammoth from it – one of the earliest known pieces of art made from ivory.  Roughly an inch high and one-and-a-half inches in length, it’s unmistakably a mammoth, complete with trunk, tail and a high domed head.  Twelve thousand years after the carving was discarded in a cave in Germany, a band of Paleolithic people dug three shallow graves into permafrost near present-day Moscow.  Thousands of tiny ivory beads adorned each skeleton, each bead laboriously made with stone tools.

The earliest carved portrait of a human face dates from around 23,000 years ago.  Discovered in a cave in France, it too was crafted from mammoth ivory.   Named the Venus of Brassempouy for the village near where it was found, the small ivory figurine has a forehead, eyes, brows, nose, but no mouth.  The top and sides of her head depict braided hair.  It was unearthed in 1894 with numerous other figurines made of stone.  Other late Stone Age “Venus” figures, with their bulging torsos and small heads devoid of detail were found in sites that range from the Pyrenees to Siberia.  Ongoing excavations and reconstructions of ivory carvings from the “Stone Age” include ivory birds, lions, horses, and several lion-headed humans, all made by stone tools.

Mammoth Skull in situ, Mammoth Museum, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Mammoth Skull in situ, Mammoth Museum, Hot Springs, South Dakota

At first, there was quite enough ivory simply lying around on the ground to satisfy the needs of man.  Ice Age huts discovered in the Ukraine used mammoth skulls as foundations and shoulder blades as walls.  Tusks held down hides draped over the rooflines.  One hut had 35 such weights.  The age of individual bones used in the construction of these huts spanned more than 10,000 years, an indication of the amount of ivory to be found at hand.  When new sites are found, they are collapsed inward upon themselves; shelters reduced to reliquaries of bone.

Reconstruction of a mammoth bone hut at the Mammoth Museum, Hots Springs, South Dakota
Reconstruction of a mammoth bone hut at the Mammoth Museum, Hots Springs, South Dakota

Early Egyptian pyramids had already been built before the last of the mammoths died.  As pharaohs consolidated their kingdoms, elephant ivory (the material closest to hand) was one of the valued items of tribute sent down the Nile by conquered states.  Not only did Tutankhamen have an ivory headrest in his tomb, he also had ivory statuettes of concubines to accompany him in his afterlife.  Game boards were entombed in his royal suite, to also allay boredom in eternity.  Made of solid ivory, the boards were fitted with carved-out drawers to hold gaming pieces.

Egyptians carved ivory into veneers, reliefs, statuary, jewelry, arrow points, small furniture, combs, spoons, the handles of weapons, scarabs, amulets, coffin lids, and used as inlays on toilet caskets (cosmetic boxes) containing such items as eye shadow pots, mirrors and perfume jars, some also made of ivory.   Cleopatra, who presided over the last of the Pharaonic dynasties, quite possibly participated in banquets while lying on a bronze couch inlaid with glass and ivory described as being in her palace in Alexandria.  The palace was also described as having ivory-paneled entrance halls.  Re-discovered in 2012 beneath the Mediterranean Sea, the royal quarters are relatively intact, having slid under water during cataclysmic earthquakes and tsunamis in the fourth and eighth centuries.   Excavations have just begun of its treasures.

To Egypt’s north, no one society dominated the eastern Mediterranean trade. However, around 1,000 BC, the Phoenicians, in what is now modern-day Lebanon and Syria, had an efficient maritime network that supplied King Solomon with the ivory he needed to build his ivory throne in his temple at Jerusalem.  Described in 1 Kings 10 of the Bible, it was “a great throne of ivory,” covered with the finest gold.  The throne also included rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other precious stones.

In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to the Egyptian city of Elephantine, located at the first cataract of the Nile, and reported that elephants could still be hunted to the west, in Libya.  Also in the fifth century BC, Greeks saw the construction of two immense ivory-covered statues, one of Athena at the Parthenon and the other of Zeus, at Olympia.  Erected around 432 BC, both were made of “chryselephantine:” clothes and scepters of gold, faces, bare arms, shoulders, and torsos covered in ivory.  Zeus, sitting on his throne, was thirty-nine feet tall, the height of a four-story building.  Because ivory dries out once it is separated from the creature who bore it, Zeus and Athena were constantly anointed with olive oil, which collected into a gleaming surrounding pool.

The statue of Zeus was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Carried off to Constantinople in 394 AD, it was destroyed by fire in 462 AD.  By the Middle Ages all chryselephantine statues had been stripped of their valuable materials and demolished.  Only the hole remains at the Parthenon that held Athena’s central wooden support.

By the third century BC, Rome replaced Greece as the center of the ancient world.  Romans used more ivory than any other civilization until the 1880s.  For their marble statues they inserted ivory into chiseled, empty eyes.  Birdcages, scroll holders, currency, cameos, candleholders, dolls, boxes, and statuettes of gladiators were all made of ivory.  Caligula built an ivory manger for his horse.  Immense consular diptychs (two ivory panels joined by a hinge) carved with the image of the governing consul served as the sign of his office.

Roman doll, Louvre, copyright Genevra Kornbluth
Roman doll, Louvre, copyright Genevra Kornbluth

The Roman demand for ivory caused North Africa’s last wild elephants to vanish around the 2nd century AD, about the time that the last Mediterranean cedars and oaks were felled.

Land that once supported elephants now barely supports goats.

African elephant tusk
African elephant tusk
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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Extinction, Jabu


Jabu’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.  An estimated two million elephants were slaughtered from 1860 to 1882, their tusks fashioned into billiard balls and piano keys.

The decade between 1979 and 1989 was the deadliest ever for African elephants.  Over 691,000 died.  In a line, trunk to tail, enough elephants to cover the distance between Miami, Florida and New York City: 1120 miles.  Around 8800 tons of ivory was harvested in that decade.  The average weight of tusks traded in 1979 was 21 pounds.  Fifty-two elephants died for each ton of tusks.  By the mid-1980s the average weight had shrunk to just 11 pounds – and so more elephants, 100 of them, died per ton.

In just one decade, the elephant population of Africa was halved – from 1.3 million to 650,000.

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.