Why Do People Want Elephant Tusks?

Ivory elephant tusks have been coveted by people for thousands of years and today are a symbol of status and wealth. Tusks from whales and walruses are also prized, but elephant ivory is the most expensive form. Unfortunately, the high demand for ivory has taken a toll on African elephants who are hunted for their tusks.

Elephant (Loxodonta africana) drinking
credit: Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images
African elephant tusks are the most coveted source of ivory.

Practical Uses

Ivory has unique properties that make it suitable for a variety of uses. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient tools and personal items made from ivory, such as hair clips, needles, spear tips and hardware. For centuries, the highest quality piano keys were made of ivory until Steinway discontinued making ivory keys in 1982. Today, the practical uses of ivory are obsolete because it has been replaced by manmade materials like plastic.

Symbol of Wealth

The modern demand for ivory stems from its practical uses in ancient times and its aesthetic appeal. In the past this precious material was traded as a luxury good and was only available to the upper class, so items made of ivory was indicative of good fortune. Today it retains its status as a symbol of money and power, especially in China, where intricately carved elephant tusks and items crafted from ivory are in high demand among wealthy collectors.