Ivory trading is illegal. Here’s a nice story about how the ill-gotten wares of the Ivory traders can have a use in science.
Ivory trading and the hunting and killing of elephants for their tusks is illegal in most countries. Despite this there is considerable demand for ivory, ivory trinkets and other elephant derived products used in unproven and largely worthless traditional medicines .
The trafficking of Ivory is tightly restricted under international law, and it is illegal to bring any Ivory into the UK without the correct permits , and the UK border agency will confiscate any Ivory that people attempt to bring into the UK.
So, what happens to the Ivory that is confiscated? It would be immoral for the UKBA to sell it and sadly it cannot be re-united with its owner.
One potential use for Ivory is biomedical research. Ivory is primarily made up of a substance called Dentine, found in teeth. Dentine is also an acceptable substitute for human bone in the sorts of assays that our lab does to test the effect of various substances on cells called Osteoclasts that are responsible for bone resorption (basically bone destruction). During growth and development of the skeleton, bone is formed (by Osteoblasts) and broken down (by Osteoclasts) – it is thought that the bone disease Osteoporosis is caused by an imbalance of bone formation and destruction – i.e. too much Osteoclast activity.
If we can find a therapeutic agent that inhibits Osteoclast activity, we might be able to halt or slow the progression of Osteoporosis. The upshot of all this is that our lab has obtained a section of Elephant horn that has been confiscated by the UKBA. We will recycle this and use the dentine in our bone resorption assays.
Ivory belongs on Elephants. However, if someone has already killed the elephant and removed the Ivory, better that we use it to further medical research and perhaps save or improve some lives, than turn it into a bauble that sits on a shelf gathering dust.