Could we fight elephant poaching by staining the tusks?

What if we could make the tusks on living elephants worthless to humans without the elephants noticing anything?


Elephant poaching is reaching dangerous levels again. [Poaching is still at unsustainable levels 2.5 years later. 2014 poaching levels were the same as 2013’s. 14 July 2015.]

Current strategies for fighting it are distressingly and predictably ineffective. There are lots of reasons. The global scale of the strategies needed to be effective is overwhelming. The requisite cooperation among too many uneasy allies is too hard to maintain.

The New York Times had a couple of stories recently. Dec 27 and Dec 30, 2012 The National Geographic had a cover story in the Fall of 2012. [On Mar 19, 2013, the Guardian reported the killing of 86 elephants in Chad.]

We try to keep the poachers from the elephants. Because that is so difficult, we also try to police the traffic in tusks at the borders and to monitor the trade in ivory all around the world.

Illegal tusks are identical to legal tusks. That is the root of the difficulty. The further the poached tusks are from the dead elephant, the harder illegality is to establish. Even poached tusks that are confiscated and stored away are pilfered and sold.

Ivory will always be valuable. Our love of it is ancient and universal. Tangible, immediate greed and deep-rooted covetousness of individuals always trump an irresolute wish to do good by the rest of us.

Being human is a problem, too. I’m not sure I could hold an exquisitely worked piece of ivory in an elegant showroom and muster much outrage at the thought of what hacking butchery might – or might not – have been committed to procure the raw material in a place far far away. It’s easy to think: what’s done is done, but, at least, here’s something beautiful that’s come of it.

OK, that’s the prelude to the question at hand:

The Question

Can the tusks of living elephants be stained to make them visibly illegal?

Stained by means of an orally taken dye “treat” that does not require the elephant to be knocked out or harmed in any way.

Stained in a way that does not affect the tusks’ utility to the elephant or the behavior of elephants to each other.

Stained so that poachers will spare an elephant because they can see that the tusks are “illegal” (and thus of much less or no value to anyone.)

Stained to give any resulting ivory a depreciating ugliness or stigma (or both) so that no one is willing to pay luxury prices to wear or display it openly.

Stained subtly enough to allay the ethical concerns of citizens and activists as well as the concerns of legitimate wildlife interests such as science and tourism.

Stained to leave the elephants oblivious and yet destroy the value of their tusks to humans.

Here’s the letdown: I don’t know the answers. I’m an American Midwesterner without the training to take this anywhere. My local zoo doesn’t even have elephants.

The idea is certainly humorous and absurdist. It was indeed a cartoon of a cavorting elephant with painted tusks that sparked the idea, but what if a color and a means of staining could be found that could pull this off? Suddenly, saving the elephants becomes manageable. The global scale is dispensed with. The focus is solely, simply the elephants. Even the movements of poacher gangs is irrelevant.

The gullible, loveable layman in me says there’s something about the chemical and structural makeup of tusks that makes the idea seem possible. Tusks are highly permeable and “their healing ability following traumatic injury is enormous.” The chemical staining of bone and teeth, in vivo (that is, still inside the patient), is well developed, but on the microscopic level and is not meant to be permanent. Yet, is the stain impermanent and the scale microscopic because that’s all we can do or because no one’s ever wanted a permanently tinted tibial plateau?

So, I put the idea out there for the right people to find it, come together and run with it. Maybe a chemist, a broadminded histologist, some iconoclastic elephant vets, a few diplomats. . .

In other words, the idea’s out there for capable people to do the real work of figuring out what stain, how to apply it and the logistics of a program to make it happen.

Some Facts

What follows are some basic facts about elephants and their tusks as well as some more thoughts on what the stain should do and some concerns about how a staining program might make the problem worse.

Tusks in brief:

Most of the tusk is ivory. Thus, stain the tusk and you’ve stained the ivory. It’s a substance called dentin, of which human teeth are also made. Human dentin is normally covered by enamel. In elephants, the enamel wears away and by maturity, the dentin is largely exposed.

Tusks grow about 7 in (16 cm) a year for most of an elephant’s life. Tusks can reach 11 ft (3.5 m) and can weigh up to 440 pds (200 kg) a pair. Reference here is to the savanna elephant of southern and eastern Africa.

A third of a tusk’s length is unseen inside the head. It is strapped into a deep recess

Brent Stirton, Getty Images/National Geographic

Brent Stirton, Getty Images/National Geographic

of the jaw to accommodate tremendous cantilevering force on the exposed portion. The oft-suggested remedy of simply chopping off all the elephants’ tusks is thus a non-starter. As the bloody portion of the tusk in the photograph illustrates, there’s still 1/3 of the tusk to poach. An elephant who had the exposed part of his or her tusk cut off, would be more vulnerable to life in the wild as well as to poachers after that last third.

Dye Considerations

Color choice must leave the colorblind elephant oblivious. After assuring that any dye used – and its method of delivery – does not damage the tusk or, in any way, imperil the elephant, the main consideration is the color. The appearance of an elephant’s tusks including their color may play a role in the interactions between elephants. Elephants are apparently colorblind. They can see mainly blue and yellow as well as black, grey and white. With the right hue and value, the tusks’ new coloring may not disturb the elephant or other elephants.

The stain must be indelible. Some clever ivory expert can’t be able to neutralize or wash out the stain with chemicals or other dyes.

The stain must be visible to the naked eye. Invisible dyes such as those that are only apparent under certain lights or using special equipment might be less controversial. However, even if that equipment is cheap and readily available, invisible staining may not stop poaching. Illegal tusks and ivory would still look the same as the legal. As long as poachers had doubts or were confused, I expect that elephants would be shot first and the tusks analyzed later. Currently, ivory of uncertain origin still has an active market. Chances are that invisibly stained tusks would develop their own market.

The stain must penetrate all through the dentin of the tusk. Poachers and buyers have to know that no part of a stained tusk is “salvageable.” The stain cannot be locally applied. If a poacher knows that a third of the tusk hidden in the skull is unmarked, the tusk is still worth poaching. The price of ivory might well rise. The number of tusks would remain constant but only the 1/3 that is inside the elephant’s skull would be of value. In short, you would have reduced the supply of ivory by 2/3s but kept the availability constant. All the elephants would still be at risk.

Ideally, the stain would not be seen in its full intensity on the surface of the tusk. It’d be intense enough to warn off poachers, but not anger locals as well as scientists, tourists or activists. Perhaps, the sun would fade the outer few millimeters.

The stain must also stain new tusk growth. The Holy Grail would be a stain that continues to color new dentin growth. It would be analogous to the persistence of a tattoo in the dermis skin layer. Otherwise, every 5 or 6 years, a dye line will appear at the base of the tusk, alerting poachers that 1/3 of the tusk is unmarked and worth killing for. A dye line may also be disturbing to the elephant despite his colorblindness.

A staining program, of course, has to be on-going to stain the tusks of newly maturing elephants, but the re-staining part would be a more complicated task. Re-staining only when a dye line is visible puts the re-stainers in competition with poachers. Trying to check any other way would require a more invasive, expensive effort. The University of Washington’s elephant DNA databank might make identifying individual elephants and their staining history simpler.

A staining program would need to be instituted quickly and intensively. As a program ramped up, the price of unstained tusks would rise to the degree that poachers judge their supply to be threatened. Though much narrower in scope than current anti-poaching efforts, a tusk staining program would still be fraught with the same political unpredictability. If a staining program were incompletely, unevenly or slowly implemented, it may well end up leaving elephants more vulnerable as the increasing bounty on their tusks and the poachers’ fear of the program may ignite more poaching.

Since the shrinking supply of unstained tusks will be driving their price, it makes sense that the supply of removed tusks stored in warehouses be stained only after the tusks of living elephants.

The Hard Part

Pitching the idea is the easy part. Hopefully, others will do the heavy lifting of identifying a stain and delivery method.


the photo is from and is used under the creative commons copyright.


28 thoughts on “Could we fight elephant poaching by staining the tusks?

  1. I’m very interested if you’ve received any legitimate feedback from your idea. I think its a valid one.
    Perhaps The BloodIvory activists could research implementing it. We need to act quickly.

    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t know if people are trying RRP’s strategy for staining rhino horns on elephants. If something like their approach proves effective, I’m sure it will be studied with elephants.

      While writing the initial post, I did not find any mention online of staining tusks to prevent poaching. I did not research rhinos because their horn is primarily keratin akin to our fingernails or horse hoofs. I made the untested assumption that keratin is too different from dentin (the main visible ingredient of tusks). I should poke that assumption a little, I guess.

      The American TV show, Nature, has a nice intro to rhinos, their horns and why they’re poached.

      • The reply from Rhino Rescue Project was, “We are experimenting with possibly treating elephant tusks in a similar way, but the internal structure of a tusk and a rhino horn are very different, so we are only in the prelimenary phases of testing.”

    • Thanks! If you know any wildlife vets, bone specialists or histologists well enough to ask them what they think, maybe they’ll be the ones to look into it!

  2. Hi,
    I like this idea and I appreciate all the thought that you have obviously put into what it would take to translate the idea into a real-world solution. As you make clear, the solution is not simple or easy. That said, I think the idea has real promise. My suggestion is that major potential donors ( foundations or corporations such as Google) be approached and the suggestion be made that they fund a prize to address the issues you have raised in connection with implementing the dyeing of elephant tusks for the purposes of saving the lives of countless elephants. I am open to being involved in making such an approach. Let me know what you think.

    • Thank you! I think what you write is great! This is an open source kind of thing. Go with your suggestion.

      In deciding to sponsor a competition, a foundation would achieve the big first step of getting the idea vetted. If it does vet out, a competition would generate in addition to solutions some publicity. It seems ethical issues work themselves out more satisfactorily when they’re articulated and debated while an idea is being fleshed out rather than when a full fledged strategy that someone is itching to implement comes out of nowhere.

      Keep us posted.

      The key is getting the right people together. If somebody reading this is a chemist with an interest in dyes sends in her thoughts. And then a wildlife vet who got the link from a neighbor’s uncle’s first wife sends in his . . .

  3. I am sorry, but this is pie in the sky – first you have to find the elephants and they are very separated over very LARGE areas. Where is the gas money for that going to come from? Then the money for rangers, vets, tranqs. and reversals, just considering the vets, there are not enough to go around. Plus the stain is only superficial, it won’t go thru the whole tusk, poachers would kill for the inner part of the tusk – or kill for reprisal. It may also not matter to a carver what color he carves in either, after all they don’t care that they are carving illegal ivory in the first place.

    • Healthy skepticism is welcome. If the poachers can find the elephants, the good guys can, too. Yes, the idea will be expensive and complicated to implement. Reprisals are a dangerous risk in any anti-poaching effort. I agree that the stain cannot be superficial. If the color acquires a public stigma, carvers will be less ready to carve.

      The idea, however, is not pie in the sky because it summarily localizes the scope of anti-poaching efforts.

      The main concern is the idea’s radicalism. Changing the appearance of an animal even to save his or her life may be just too pro-active and invasive an idea.

      Does staining elephant tusks represent a slippery slope of radical intervention? Perhaps, but dilatory moral suasion is not working. As long as ivory is valuable worldwide and the rule of law in countries with elephants is weak, elephants will be slaughtered near to extinction.

  4. wow. this hits almost all of my buttons. creative problem solving. animal preservation. the history of dye/pigment. the color pink. I am a 51 year old artist (who took a sabatical from teaching to work at a zoo for a year.) I would even be interested in being on a team of folks looking into how to get some funding for some initial research. I’m curious how you are promoting this idea. I might even be able to help on a small scale in fundraising area…epecially connected to a NPO. thanks for this idea. I hope someone listens! –Pinky Diablo aka Tom Sale

    • Thanks so much, Pinky! The only promotion thus far is this blog. As I say elsewhere, this is an open source kind of thing. Please follow your enthusiasm and ideas.

      Any response – for or against – from your colleagues at the zoo?

  5. African forest elephants’ (Loxodonta cyclotis) tusks are already stained from the tannins and other substances in the forest mud. This doesn’t stop them from being killed for their tusks. Also, capturing Savannah Elephants to superficially dye their tusks is not only exorbitantly expensive but it also puts an incredible amount of stress on the animals. Many elephants could die from overheating and from improperly dosed tranquilizer (this can happen with even the best vets) [. . .] Their lungs can collapse from being on the ground for too long. High elephant and human casualties are inevitable when such a large scale endeavour is proposed and this would be a classic case of loving a species to death. [aspersions deleted] I have worked in the field for over 25 years and with elephants for 5 and I can tell you that it just won’t fly. [. . .] I second Save Queenie’s comments as well. [aspersions deleted]

    • OK, now, what’s a successful tusk dyeing program look like? Would the brief include:

      1 no tranquilizers

      2 dye needs to delivered by food or drink

      3 dye needs to be highly concentrated so it can saturate the tusks in 1 or few dosages

      4 dye delivery mechanism must target teeth only

      5 physical form of the dosage must be designed to be delivered quickly so as to minimize dyers’ exposure to retribution in the field and to allow rapid deployment over vast areas

      6 the formulation must must appeal to mature elephants and be ignored by other animals

      • I have run this idea (in theory) by scientists who study elephants for a living, and they generally reiterate some of the issues already mentioned here – the massive amount of qualified personnel to do a dangerous job, inevitable loss of elephant lives due to problems recovering from the darting, the ethical questions involved in putting the animals through so much because we humans can’t control the blood lust for ivory, the possibility of dyed tusks changing elephant interactions. The biggest of the big seems to be managing to permanently stain the tusks (including the invisible third of the tusk embedded in the face) in a way not harmful to the animal, but which renders the tusk unusable for carvers. I had happened on an carvers’ chat room several years ago, wherein a carver was discussing his experience with a small piece of ivory that he had intended to carve but had in the interim spilled some ink upon. He mentioned that the nk had traveled extensively throughout the fine cracks and crevices in the piece, and had thoroughly stained it. He was asking if anyone knew of anything he could use to clean the piece, and was told that there really wasn’t a way – that it was permanently ruined and he’s just have to toss it. Got me thinking about very watery ink-like permanent vegetable dyes that could travel into the unseen parts as well as the visible parts of the tusk. I have no idea how one would manage to deliver something through the animals’ diets. These are migratory creatures and they are hardly alone in the wilds of Africa/Asia, so leaving something for them to partake of at some point in their travels, wouldn’t be of use because so many other species would also be exposed to it, for good or ill. Still, the idea obsesses me and I so wish someone with a chemistry background would take this up as an avocation. Saving the earth’s largest land mammal does seem a worthy enough cause that one would think it would pique the interest of better minds than mine.

      • Thank you very much for the comment. You sum things up with a great blend of passion and practicality. The idea nags because we cannot definitively say it will not work. You’ve sketched in the some of the questions still to research. We need to keep wondering aloud to get the attention of better minds than ours. Google Scholar is pretty interesting in the hands of the right layperson . . . Did you know they give captive elephants Advil for trauma injuries and arthritis?

        The vegetable ink idea is interesting. Tusks are quite porous. They grow and heal by moving material efficiently between the dentin pulp and the dentin from the core of the tusk to its surface. It seems possible to stain a tusk from the inside out. As you write, though, the right dye and right delivery method must meet a range of criteria.

    • EO,
      I’ve got glum and hopeful . . .

      The glum news is: No updates to report staining tusks. As for anti-poaching efforts, in general, I recently put up some thoughts at All We Do for the Elephants Exactly. I’m glum there, too. As things are, elephants will survive in the few countries that have some modicum of rule of law like Botswana, South Africa and, possibly, Kenya. Or in places where the ruler just likes elephants like Gabon. Elsewhere, they will be killed off entirely or, at best, their numbers will be reduced to several dozen. In the future, surviving elephants may be relocated back to their lost ranges.

      Staining tusks is a popular idea that occurs to lots of people. My stats page tells me most people find the site by googling variations of “dyeing elephant tusks.”

      So far, unfortunately, to my knowledge, no one has ever explored the idea fully and reported on its viability. (I know wildlife experts are cringing or seething as they read this, but I’m just saying.)

      The hopeful news is: My stats page also tells me how many people have visited. In the last 6 weeks, 7,500 visitors have been by. That is 2x the number who visited in the 2+ years before that.

      So, maybe, someone – wildlife expert or not – will be intrigued by the site’s arguments to do some thinking and researching. Or maybe the link will be forwarded to someone who might.


      ps – If anybody knows why my stats might have shot up, could you let me know? Tiny traffic spikes in the past have occurred after widely reported poaching incidents. Fortunately, that is not the case here. And the magnitude and duration of this spike is many times those of the poaching related spikes.

      pps – EO wrote me again and offered this theory. “I assume the spikes in website traffic could be because of people seeing FaceBook forwards of elephant photos [with Photoshop pink tusks] then researching the accuracy or possibility as I did. It’s nice to know people care enough to do a little research. . .” Thank you for enlightening me.

  6. I hear elephants are particularly keen on liquor… at least Asian elephants. But, that has it’s own issues as a delivery method obviously. Perhaps there are other goodies that could hide a dye or substance to change the color. It would be random groups that would receive it. I came across this site looking for verification from a Facebook photo from a group called A Parade of Elephants. Just curious what’s really happening now. Thank you.

    • Thank you for writing!

      What an interesting idea! Alcohol soluble dyes. Just Googling- permanent dyes alcohol -makes the idea plausible. It brings up woodworkers, hair stylists and tie-dyers.

      But Googling- “bone histology” stain alcohol -is really interesting.

      I am not working on this now because as I’ve written the science is beyond me. But maybe your idea might be the thing that gets someone going. Please forward this site to others and see what happens.

      Until your comment, I have been glum. See my reply to the previous comment.

      [a few days later] This idea of elephants liking liquor seems to have been debunked a few years ago.

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  8. Please don’t give up! Your idea is great. I had the very same while watching a TV news article about poaching in Kenya yesterday. Just like you I’m happy to leave the clever science stuff up to chemists and vets but what struck me was that the authorities proposed putting the tons of seised tusks, stored in an underground bunker, on a big bonfire as a demonstration. This is completely the wrong approach.
    Tasteless as it is the authorities should flood the market with the confiscated Ivory (as someone pointed out – those elephants are dead now anyway). This tactic would achieve several things: it would make ivory less valuable (supply and demand), thereby probably putting some of the poachers out of business and it would raise funds to explore and resource the dying project.

    • Thank you for the support.

      Selling confiscated ivory to raise money for anti-poaching efforts is a likeable idea that is not a good one.

      We can’t tell ourselves not to buy ivory because of its harm to the elephants and then put it on sale every couple of years.

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  10. Someone may have mentioned it elsewhere but there is a alcoholic beverage made from what I believe is called the elephant fruit. From the description of the product elephants migrate to eat fruit on an annual basis as it ferments upon ripening. Would this not be a good opportunity to introduce some intense dentin staining compound to the elephant. Most likely not all elephants have access to this fruit but perhaps many do.

    • That’s the marula fruit. Indigenous to some areas of South Africa, West Africa, and I believe maybe Madagascar as well. Not widely available where the vast majority of elephants are, sadly…

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