What Are Ivory Tusks Used For?

Updated April 17, 2017

Ivory is a precious material derived from the teeth and tusks of certain animal species. Ivory has been used throughout history to create decorations and everyday objects. Over-harvesting of some species has led to the prohibition of a large portion of the ivory trade. Today synthetic ivory and other alternatives to previous sources of the material are used to make jewellery and trinkets.

Use in Nature

Ivory comes from the teeth and tusks of certain animals. The most well-known sources of ivory include African elephants, Asian elephants, narwhals and walruses. Wild boars, toothed whales, hornbills and hippopotamuses also produce ivory. Mastodons and mammoths are two extinct species whose teeth and tusks can be made into ivory. Many animals use their tusks for foraging, ease of movement, fighting and protection. A narwhal tusk grows from the animal's front left tooth. Male narwhals use their long tusks for mating displays and fighting for dominance. Tusks may also aid in navigation and communication.

Use by Humans

Humans' use for ivory is relatively limited today because many of the animals used to make ivory are endangered and therefore protected from being harvested for their teeth and tusks. Some countries have restrictions on the trade of ivory products even if they come from non-endangered animals. Bone, ivory derived from plants and simulated ivory have replaced more traditional sources. Trinkets and jewellery are the most popular uses for any kind of ivory today. There are fewer restrictions on the use of ivory from extinct and fossilised mammals like mammoths and mastodons. It is allowed to be used and sold, although federal land management agencies prohibit digging for fossils on government land.

Historical Usage

Ivory has been used to make decorative and utilitarian items since early history. Ancient Egypt, China and India were three major civilisations that created ivory products and participated in the ivory trade. Ivory was used for diverse purposes prior to the invention of plastic. Some products made from ivory in the 19th century include buttons, combs, jewellery, decorative inlay, billiard balls, etched scrimshaw decorations and piano keys. The elephant ivory trade continued until it was outlawed in 1989 under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Other ivory-producing animals are also now protected from slaughter for their teeth or tusks.


The killing of elephants and other animals to harvest their ivory are outlawed in many countries. However, poachers continue to illegally slaughter tusked animals. The materials made from poached ivory are outlawed as well but are available on black markets. Popular uses for poached elephant ivory include signature seals, tourist trinkets and jewellery. It is also illegal to harvest marine mammals for their products. Indigenous populations are allowed to kill marine mammals like whales and walruses to use their hides, bones, meat and ivory. These people may create and sell ivory pieces for income.

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About the Author

Sarah Clark has been writing since 1997, with work appearing in Northern Arizona University's "Student Life Organization Newsletter." She holds a B.A. in anthropology with a minor in art history from Northern Arizona University.