Turning objections into challenges

Daily Brew you can't stain elephant tusksYahoo Canada ran a “Daily Brew” article a few days ago about staining tusks to stop poaching. The expert quoted, Anne Lambert of the Internat’l Conservation Fund of Canada, says, “Darting and applying dye to elephants would involve a huge cost and stress and risk to elephants.”

I agree with this.

Ms Lambert dismisses the idea of staining tusks as thus “impractical to impossible.”

That I disagree with.

painting elephant tusks pink poorly

Wildlife experts say this is how NOT to stain an elephant’s tusks. Yes, I think we’d all agree on that. So, how can we do it? (photo Sayyid Azim AP, w Photoshop’g)

The objection is that you can’t knock out the elephants and paint their tusks.

The challenge then is how to deliver the dye into their system in something they’ll eat or maybe in something off-the-wall like a skin patch (like a nicotine patch) that has been plunked onto the elephant’s flank by flatheaded arrow spread with a bit of 3M’s finest adhesive. Without tranquilizers and with no stress. No impractical and expensive teams of elephant handlers.

dyeing elephant tusks with doum

This might be one way to stain tusks. Tanzanian elephant enjoys a ripe doum fruit. Doums are quite a healthy snack which might well be healthier laced with a bit of indelible dye…

You’ll probably need several doses of dye to stain the tusks fully, and elephants are suspicious eaters, so it’s an ornery problem. Still, doesn’t it seem manageable enough to look into? (Laugh, but Nestles makes pet food. I’d ask them for suggestions – and funding. Or Clairol. You think that they’ve never thought about the market potential of hair dye in a pill?)

If you have suggestions on how to proceed, please comment. If this is a non-starter, tell me why.

Why stain tusks to fight poaching?

I go into this at All We Do for the Elephants . . . Exactly, but let’s take the example of Tanzania. Poaching there has been intractable. 65,000 or 60% of their elephants were killed in 5 years. The government is thought to be complicit in poaching and ivory smuggling. (Officially, the government takes a “Who? Us?” line. To them, the loss of 12,000 elephants in one reserve is “the greatest wildlife mystery ever.”)

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Towards a Pink Future

Visits to this site have jumped recently. This elephant pic seems to be playing an out-sized role in the jump.

Elephant whitened tusks before pink

The dolled-up, Photoshop’d version is making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest.

Pink Elephant Tusks courtesy PhotoShop

One day, I hope that the pink will be real – if significantly paler. (Elephants don’t see reds well, so pink may be a good choice.)

This site doesn’t have the answer. The intent is to make the idea plausible enough to intrigue the right people to explore it.

Please comment with suggestions. Please link to this site. If you can’t research it, you can still help. Please forward the site to someone you know of who might look into it.

Like who?

The choice of stain to use is the biggest hurdle, so send it to someone you know who develops non-toxic dyes at a food company. Or that hair color chemist you met who works at L’Oreal.

Or the neighbor who stains bone samples for research (histotechnologist).

Or your brother’s cosmetic dentist who – for something different – might like to figure out how to stain teeth pink rather bleach them white.

Or that nice ivory conservator who might open up about what stains she’s never been able to remove.

Sure, staining tusks is a fringe idea, but I wonder about it because our current anti-poaching strategies are problematic. I go into this at All We Do For the Elephants . . . Exactly. The piece on MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) might be the best introduction to the issues.

Ectopic bone formation induced by sonoporation

Some snapshots (@ 5 microns) of ectopic bone formation, using 2 different staining techniques. Were the stains injected into a person or into a specimen after extraction? Could the dyes be made indelible? Could the staining be scaled up for something the size of a tusk. (fyi, BF = bone formation, BM = bone marrow, M = muscle.) source

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For the accepted wisdom on the viability of staining elephant tusks to prevent poaching, scroll down to “A conservation biologist’s take on dyeing elephant tusks” from Prof. Samuel Wasser or click here to see it on a separate page

For the short version of how a staining program might work, see the 3rd post from the bottom, “How a viable tusk staining program might work in brief” or click here 

The longer version is at the bottom, “Could we fight elephant poaching by staining the tusks?” or click here

For a look at our current (2015) anti-poaching efforts, please see my blog, All We Do For The Elephants . . . Exactly. Poaching in 2015 is still at unsustainable levels. 2014 poaching levels were the same as 2013’s. (14 July 2015)

Immediately following is something about a staining program’s potential compared to our current anti-poaching efforts in a reply to a reader.

Thoughts on something a big game hunter said about hunting elephants before it’s too late.

Thanks for reading. Please comment.

Staining with fluoride or tetracycline

I got a comment the other day:

What about fluoride? I know that too much fluoride in the public drinking water stains children’s teeth a mottled grey, from the inside out.

While tetracycline staining and cosmetic dentistry seem interesting leads in a similar vein and which I discuss at the end of this post, I don’t think fluoride staining will work. I shamelessly offer my layman’s reasons why because something I write may spark something else in the commenter or others . . .

Or annoy the right expert enough to be drawn in . . . Continue reading

You think poachers talk like that?

This post is a little beside the point of this blog. Some thoughts on something a big game hunter said about hunting elephants before it’s too late . . .

Like most people, I find it easy to be against poaching elephants for their tusks. 

But, I ask myself, am I against killing the occasional elephant if the tusks are not removed? You know, if they’re kept with the head as part of a trophy for the manor wall or with the whole carcass for a display in a big box store?

Cabelas Hamburg Pa Store 2

Cabela’s Hamburg, Pa store (Google Maps)

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How a viable tusk staining program might work in brief.

Here is an account of the May 6, 2013 killing of 26 elephants in the Central African Republic. [Poaching is still at unsustainable levels 2+ years later. 2014 poaching levels were the same as 2013’s. 14 July 2015.]

The crux of a workable staining program will be the dye. Does such a dye exist that can do what is required?

My hunch is that the answer will come from one or more specialists whose field(s) have no connection to elephants and poaching. My hope is that readers of this blog will know the answer or how to go about pursuing an answer or put the question to ones who do. My hope is that the answer will be found, shared, vetted and perfected. And a species-saving tusk staining program will become a reality.

The 1st post of this blog at the very bottom is a discussion of the need to destroy the value of a tusk to end poaching effectively and how that might be done.

The rest of this post is a briefer, sharper version of the “how” part with some new thoughts. If time is short, please keep reading this one.

The dye and its form of delivery must:

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A conservation biologist’s take on dyeing elephant tusks

I emailed conservation biologist Sam Wasser the question of whether it is practical to protect elephants from poachers by dyeing their tusks.

He replied,

“Thanks for your note. It’s an interesting idea. The big concern is the time it will take to stain the tusks of 400,000 skittish elephants and the time it will take for the stain to find it’s way into the tusk. Most likely, permanent stain will have to be delivered by food and grow into the tusk. You can’t immobilize 400,000 elephants to stain their tusks as it is too risky for the elephants and the people doing the immobilizations. Thus, it would take many years to achieve your goals, if it is even possible. Given the urgency of the situation (30,000-45,000 elephants now being killed annually), we need a plan that stops as much of the killing as possible, as soon as possible. (This is, of course, in addition to programs aimed at decreasing demand.) Our program aims to achieve these objectives by using DNA assignment to identify all major poaching hotspots across Africa for targeted law enforcement.”

Dr. Samuel Wasser
Director of Center for Conservation Biology
Research Professor, Department of Biology
University of Washington, Seattle

I wondered

Instead of 400,000, what if we focused on the 200,000 elephants at the greatest risk in Tanzania and Zimbabwe as well as those in Central and Western Africa? No worries about Botswana’s 125,000+ elephants. They’re safe enough there that other elephants emigrate there. Let’s focus on the places where the weak rule of law makes problematic such traditional anti-poaching methods as 24/7 vigilance over vast areas, more guns and better enforcement. A staining program might only require country access every 2 or 3 years.

What if we didn’t have to immobilize, or knock out, the elephants? The last scholarly article about drug delivery to elephants was in 2004 and that centered on a captive Asian elephant. Maybe the urgency of the poaching crisis might inspire some new research.

What if a staining program didn’t take many years to implement? What if the dye already exists, but the people who are using it are too far removed from elephant conservation to say, “Hey, I wonder if this amazing stain might help against poaching . . .?” Specialists in bone disease or regrowth, say or cosmetic dentists or consumer food company chemists.

We need a plan. We needed a plan when South Africa hunted its elephants to near extinction by 1900. We needed a plan in 1989 at the peak of the last poaching crisis. We will need a plan if ever there is a recovery in the decimated herds of Angola, South Sudan, the Congo Basin or any of the West African countries.

Note on Dr Wasser and his team

They are building and using an elephant DNA database to fight elephant poaching and ivory smuggling now and in the future. The database helps identify a tusk’s or piece of ivory’s country of origin. This gives some sense of whether a tusk might be illegally gotten or not. It also helps law enforcement understand where the poaching is going on as well as something of ivory smuggling routes.

Most anti-poaching efforts are temporary. New rangers are hired. Guns, vehicles drones and GPS equipment are bought. These however are effective only up to the inevitable moment the funding runs out or corruption moves in. Bans and Global Initiatives are great while political will and public attention exists.

By contrast, the value of the Center for Conservation Biology’s elephant DNA database will continue to grow as it becomes more comprehensive. Its funding may ebb and flow, but its usefulness will only grow.

Dr Wasser’s June 2015 article gives an overview of the database and its value to protecting the elephants.

In 2010, his team helped block Tanzania’s request to sell 100 tons of its stockpiled ivory by demonstrating how much ivory was already leaving the country illegally, sharply contradicting the government’s modest estimates.