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Ivory is a hard, white, opaque substance that is the bulk of the teeth and tusks of animals such as the elephant, hippopotamus, walrus, mammoth and narwhal.

Ivory has availed itself to many ornamental and practical uses. Prior to the introduction of plastics, it was used for billiard balls, piano keys, bagpipes, buttons and a wide range of ornamental items. Synthetic substitutes for ivory have been developed. Plastics have been viewed by piano purists as an inferior ivory substitute on piano keys, although other recently developed materials more closely resemble the feel of real ivory.

The chemical structure of the teeth and tusks of mammals is the same regardless of the species of origin, and the trade in certain teeth and tusks other than elephant is well established and widespread. Therefore, "ivory" can correctly be used to describe any mammalian teeth or tusks of commercial interest which is large enough to be carved or scrimshawed.

Teeth and tusks have the same origins. Teeth are specialized structures adapted for food chewing. Tusks, which are extremely large teeth projecting beyond the lips, have evolved from teeth and give certain species an evolutionary advantage. The teeth of most mammals consists of a root and the tusk proper.

The Syrian and North African elephant populations were reduced to extinction, probably due to the demand for ivory in the Classical world.

The Chinese have long valued ivory for both art and utilitarian objects. Southeast Asian kingdoms included tusks of the Indian elephant in their annual tribute caravans to China. Chinese craftsmen carved ivory to make everything from images of Buddhist and Taoist deities to opium pipes.

In Southeast Asian countries where Muslim Malay peoples live, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, ivory was the material of choice for making the handles of magical kris daggers. In the Philippines ivory has also traditionally been used to craft the faces and hands of Catholic icons and images of saints.

In 2007 Ebay, under pressure from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, made the decision to ban all international sales of elephant ivory products. The IFAW found that up to 90% of the elephant ivory transactions on Ebay violated their own wildlife policies and could potentially be illegal. The ban does not affect trade within the United States but only trade between sellers in different countries.

The 2006 Zakouma elephant slaughter in Chad is one of a long series of massacres which have eliminated some percent of the original 300,000 African elephant population of Chad in only four decades.

The demand for ivory is primarily from the Japanese hanko industry. Hankos are small seals. Traditionally, these hankos were also made from other material. Ivory hankos were introduced only in the last century.

Trade in the ivory from the tusks of dead mammoths has occurred for 300 years and continues to be legal. Mammoth ivory is used today to make handcrafted knives and similar implements.

A species of hard nut is gaining popularity as a replacement for ivory, although its size limits its usability. It is sometimes called vegetable ivory, or tagua, and is the seed endosperm of the ivory nut palm commonly found in coastal rainforests of Ecuador , Peru and Colombia.


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