Seized illegal ivory could be used productively in medical experiments. But should it be? Take our one question survey and give us your opinion.

There has been an international ban on the trade in ivory since 1989, but hundreds of elephants are still killed by poachers. Last year saw record levels of ivory seizures around the world. Authorities are unsure whether the new levels imply an increase in poaching, or better law enforcement. Either way, a huge number of elephant tusks are being collected and most will be burned.  A summit meeting in Botswana reported 18 seizures in 2013 that were classified as large: in excess of 500 kilos. The total was more than 41.5 tonnes. China recently crushed 6.2 tonnes of illegal ivory in a public demonstration of its stand against poached tusks. It is estimated that the figurines, sculptures and ornaments represented about 700 slaughtered elephants.  There are ways in which ivory could be used in scientific and medical research, for example to replace bone or other animal tissues as a substrate when growing cells. So is it right that the seized tusks should be destroyed, or should they be recycled in the pursuit of science?


The ivory market is associated with organised crime so it is important to do as much as possible to hinder the trade.  Reusing ivory would potentially increase demand and, as a consequence, its value would also increase, providing a further incentive for poaching. Keeping ivory, even in a museum or a secure centre, risks its return to the illegal market and so there is a possibility that it would still eventually end up as ornaments or jewellery. Destroying it reinforces the message that poaching will not be tolerated.  Ivory is a finite, non-renewable resource and nothing should be done to encourage even a legal trade in it. Elephant populations are under threat from more than just poaching. Increasing human populations and the demand for more land are destroying its habitat. Even though it makes a good substitute in bone models, its use would delay the search for a non-animal alternative. While there is a supply of any animal substance that works, researchers are less likely to look for other models.


Ivory provides a good model for bone and is already used in some laboratories who are supplied from customs seizures. It has a relatively large cross section and so has some advantages over animal bones, because it provides a larger working area. As an alternative it could reduce the demand for bone. It is also possible to test ivory for the health of the animal it was taken from, and so provide a measure of the health of the population in general: information that could support conservation efforts. As well as seized contraband, it would be possible to source ivory ethically from zoos, or deaths in the wild.  It could be dyed at source to make it useless for the ornament trade, but would still be helpful in scientific research. Crushing ivory does not actually answer the ethical question because there is still the problem of what to do with the remains. Even crushed, it might be possible to make use of the material.