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Tusks & Ivory
Both male and female African elephants grow tusks. They have a variety of uses. They may be used to dig holes, rip up vegetation, strip bark from trees and lever heavy objects. They are also used for self-defence, and in aggressive attacks. Some animals can sometimes be seen resting their trunks on their tusks.
What are tusks?
Elephant tusks are upper incisor teeth, which grow very long. They are similar to human teeth, consisting of a central core of pulp, covered in dentine and encased in bone-like cementum. The internal dentine, making up 95% of the tusk, is the substance commonly referred to as ‘ivory'. It is a combination of mineral-based connective tissue and collagen proteins, making it very strong. Young elephants also have a layer of enamel at the very tip of their tusks but this is soon worn off and not replaced.
How do they grow?
At birth a small milk tooth, known as a ‘tush', is already in place. The full tusk grows behind this 5cm long tooth, breaking through at around one year old. As the tusks grow longer, ivory is formed within the central pulp cavity in the root and laid down in layers. Over time these layers form concentric circles similar to growth rings in trees.
These concentric lines can be seen clearly in a cross-section of a tusk. In addition, elephant and mammoth dentine has a characteristic cross-hatching pattern (also known as Lines of Schreger or engine-turnings) which can be used to identify ivory. This is not present in the tusks of other animals.
Tusks grow throughout an elephant's life although they may wear down or even break due to extensive use or major clashes. Many elephants favour one tusk over the other (effectively they are left- or right- tusked just as you are left- or right-handed). The most-used, or ‘master' tusk is usually shorter than the ‘servant' as it is worn-down by regular use. Often the most gentle bull elephants have the largest tusks in a population, as they are less likely to break them in a fierce clash.
About one quarter of the tusk is housed within the elephant's skull, which has developed in order to be able to bear the weight of these huge teeth.
Do other animals have ivory?
Animals such as walruses and warthogs have well-developed canine teeth which could be described as tusks. These are not generated in the same way as elephant tusks and the material is not as strong or as suitable for carving. Only elephant tusks have a cross-hatch pattern when viewed in cross-section, and the term ivory is generally only applied to this material.
Rhino horns are made from keratin, the same substance that is found in human hair and fingernails.
Ivory has always been valued by man as a decorative article. It is prized as an excellent material for carving. The Old Testament records that King Solomon ordered his throne to be made of ivory as long ago as 1000BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans also valued the substance.
The ivory trade peaked in the 19th century when ivory was considered a symbol of wealth and status. It was used to make buttons, brush handles, letter openers, fans, billiard balls, piano keys and statues. In the 1980s, Japan was the biggest consumer of ivory in the world. Much of it was used to carve personal signature stamps called hankos. Everyone in Japan needs a seal to do business and those made from ivory became a popular sign of high social rank.
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