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Ivory is a hard, white material that is primarily derived from the tusks and teeth of animals, most notably elephants, but also walruses, hippos, and narwhals. It has been valued for thousands of years for its beauty, durability, and the ease with which it can be carved.

Composition and Characteristics

Ivory consists primarily of dentine, a bony tissue that makes up the majority of the tusks and teeth of mammals. It's characterized by its creamy white color, though it may yellow over time, and its unique luster.

It's a dense material that can be polished to a high shine, and it has a fine grain that allows for detailed carving. However, it is also relatively soft compared to materials like stone or metal, which has made it a preferred material for small, intricately detailed works of art.

Historical Usage

Ivory has been used in art and craftwork for over 30,000 years. Archaeological discoveries have unearthed Paleolithic ivory carvings that are among the oldest known works of figurative art. In more recent history, it was used extensively in Asian and European art, for religious figures, decorative panels, and small personal items like combs or snuffboxes.

Ivory was also used for practical purposes because of its durability and pleasant tactile quality. It was used for piano keys and billiard balls until the late 19th century when alternatives like plastics were developed.

Modern Issues and Controversies

The demand for ivory, particularly from elephants, has led to severe poaching issues. It is estimated that tens of thousands of elephants are killed for their ivory each year, leading to a drastic decline in elephant populations.

In response to this, many countries have instituted bans or severe restrictions on the ivory trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was first signed in 1973 and has been ratified by over 180 countries, has largely banned the international trade in elephant ivory.

This has led to new challenges, such as the growth of a black market in illegal ivory and the development of synthetic alternatives, often called "faux ivory," which are made from materials like resins or even tagua nuts.

Despite these efforts, the demand for ivory remains high, and the future of many ivory-producing species remains uncertain. Conservation efforts continue worldwide to protect these animals and find sustainable alternatives to ivory.

In summary, while ivory is a material of great beauty and historical significance, its use today is fraught with ethical and ecological concerns due to the serious threat to the survival of elephants and other ivory-producing animals.