Vegetable Ivory: A Humane Alternative to Elephant Poaching
Recently I was browsing a museum catalog for netsukes, the carved Japanese ornaments which hang from kimono sashes on cords and function as pockets. Historically, netsukes were carved from wood or ivory and usually depicted animals. They are sought by collectors and featured in museums throughout the world. It is illegal to sell any carved ivory produced after 1947, so the classic designs are now reproduced in resin or "vegetable ivory", the white dense meat of the tagua nut from South America.
The Origins of Vegetable Ivory
Tagua, also known as Corozo, comes from a palm-like tree Phytelephas aequatorialis which grows in the rain forests of Ecuador. The tree, whose name actually means "elephant," thrives along the streams and tributaries of the Amazon, specifically the Napo River between Ecuador and Peru.
These trees, which reach 20-40 feet in height, produce clusters of melon-size fruits which hold their seeds inside a hard horned shell. Started from a seedling, a tree takes nearly fifteen years before mature enough to produce fruits. One it reaches this stage, it is capable of fruiting for over a hundred years. Since the ripened fruits fall to the ground, the trees themselves do not need to be cut and harvested. A single tree produces about 15 fruits per harvest with each one containing about 30 tagua nuts. Each tree has roughly three crops per year, producing an overall yield of approximately 20-50 lbs. of vegetable ivory. In additional to the carvable nuts, the tree's fronds are used for roofing material, and the fruits are used as a food source unless left to fully harden.
The center endosperm of these nuts is a dense white cellulose material that can be easily carved and dyed. It can also be carefully burned with a hot needle for pyrographic designs. Named "vegetable ivory," it is a sustainable resource for making figurines, beads, buttons, and other decorative items.
The nuts are harvested from the forest floor then allowed to air dry for 2 months or are placed in kilns to remove any residual moisture and kill burrowing insects.This process also increases the durability of the cellulose and prevents cracks as decorative pieces age. The outer surface of the nut accepts dye easily but doesn't allow complete saturation. This makes tagua perfect for sgraffito, scrimshaw, and other contrast carvings used for beads and buttons.
Tagua Is Introduced To The Market
In the mid-1800s when trade between Europe and South America was in full swing, the corozo, or tagua nut, found its way into the hulls of the wooden trade ships to help stabilize them against rough seas and to prevent cargo shifting. The use of sand proved to be a problem and the plentiful palm nuts were a practical replacement.
In the port of Hamburg, some of the nuts purportedly ended up in the pockets of Austrian woodcarver Johann Hille who went on to prove their carve-ability. Once this was discovered, demand for it skyrocketed, and the German Hellwig family built the first trading post in Manta, Ecuador around 1895. From here, exports went to Italy where artisans carved the tagua into beautiful buttons and returned them for commercial distribution.
After the opening of the Panama Canal, the Zanchi family of Italy found the South American source of the corozo and established their own Ecuadorian trading post nearby. It was named Casa Tagua. Eventually, the two companies merged through marriage and had continued success until plastics replaced the demand for vegetable ivory.The decade of the 1920s had tagua exports bringing 5 million annually to the economy of South America!
Earlier in England, a Venezuelan toymaker is believed to have introduced vegetable ivory through his wares, and the first buttons carved from the tagua discs were displayed in 1862 at the Universal Expo in Paris. By 1863, American production was set up in Rochester, NY and was going strong. France was soon to follow in 1870.
During World War I, army uniform buttons were carved from vegetable ivory to incorporate the shank too. The metal used previously was in short supply and needed for weapons. Production of buttons became more mainstream and existing factories were converted to handle the demands of the uniforms. In 1918, 216,000,000 buttons were needed for the army's shirts alone! The leftover tagua waste was used by the Chemical Warfare Service for making the charcoal filters of the gas mask canisters. Little was wasted. By 1940, the increased use of celluloid, bakelite, and other plastics brought the production of vegetable ivory to a screeching halt.
Tagua Makes A Comeback
In the 1980s, vegetable ivory re-emerged as the shining star of sustainability due to the efforts of Conservation International. Patagonia ,The Gap, and subsidiaries like Banana Republic began featuring the eco-friendly buttons on their garments, and the trend soon spread throughout the high fashion industry. Vegetable ivory is also used in the manufacture of chess pieces, game tiles,umbrella handles, jewelry, decorative carvings, and musical instruments, including bagpipes.
Carved tagua makes beautiful jewelry and is often combined with silver and other metals. Good quality pieces should be properly dried for 8 weeks before carving, allowed to cure for 2 weeks after being colored with vegetable dye, then sealed with a resin for durability. As long as it is not allowed to get wet and is kept from prolonged sun exposure, it will last for many years with nothing more than an occasional buffing with a soft cotton cloth.
Advocating For Sustainability
In one year, a tagua palm can produce as much "ivory" from its fruits as that which comes from a single elephant tusk! Tagua and other inferior grades of vegetable ivory have taken away any functional need for carvable animal products. Although the nuts are much smaller than tusks, they can be laminated together for larger objects.
It is extremely disturbing that the ivory trade still exists due to Asian demand and that poachers continue to torture, maim, and kill the world's magnificent elephants and rhinos for money. Do NOT buy products made from ivory, horn, or horn-bill from birds. It cannot be harvested without great harm or death to these animals.
In addition to the disturbing fact that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes, funds from the ivory trade have been linked to global terrorist activity through the purchase and transport of weapons. Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow's poignant animated short film Last Days has been shown worldwide as a PSA to promote awareness of senseless elephant slaughter and its even darker repercussions.
As long as there is demand for ivory tusks and rhino horn, poachers will continue to break the laws. It isn't easy to change cultural traditions and beliefs that have existed for hundreds of years. It can only be accomplished if new generations are educated to see the detriments of ancient customs and taught to embrace the benefits of this sustainable resource. Not only does tagua production provide a viable income for the indigenous people of the Amazonian rain forests, it reduces the need for other income-producing practices such as farming and raising cattle through slash & burn deforestation and land use. Vegetable ivory is a win-win for the economy and for our earth.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Catherine Tally