Elephant ivory has been used by humans since the earliest times. Evidence even exists of early man building simple dwellings from piles of mammoth tusks. Ivory carvings have comprised an important part of Asian art for over a thousand years and demand in the 19th and early part of the 20th century for mundane items as billiard balls and piano keys has led to the slaughter of literally hundreds of thousands of elephants.
It is important to state that Asian elephants are far less prone to poaching than African elephants because only some Asian males have tusks and both sexes are tusk bearing in African elephants. However, among ivory carvers it is said that Asian ivory is of a higher quality. Whether this difference is real or perceived it still exists and therefore creates a demand for Asian elephant tusks.
Although hard reliable data about the extent of poaching is difficult to comes across, not least because of its illegal nature, there is some information and plenty of anecdotal evidence. Studies undertaken by Raman Sukumar in India suggest that ivory poaching was responsible for between 44 and 68% of all male elephant deaths in three Indian provinces. There is also widespread evidence of poaching in other parts of southeast Asia; particularly Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos where alarming decreases in the elephant population seem to have been caused by poaching.
One of the problems associated with poaching male Asian elephants is the creation of serious imbalances in the ration between the sexes. This affects not just the rate of reproduction, but also leads to a decline in the necessary genetic diversity required to ensure healthy populations. This phenomenon is being demonstrated by the growing prevalence of males without tusks as the ‘tusk' gene is disappearing.
In recent years, organisations such as Traffic are starting to report a decline in demand for ivory as the international public's awareness of the issue grows. However, there is still enormous demand in both China and Japan for ivory products - particularly netsuke and personal chops.