This image, and the idea of dyeing elephant tusks to destroy their value to poachers, has been floating around the Internet lately, sometimes presented as an idea that we should pursue, but more often being presented as something already being done. I looked into this and, unfortunately, it’s not something that’s being done right now, and worse, it might not be feasible at all.
The earliest appearance of this photoshopped image that I can find is in a Facebook post offering it up as an illustration for the idea of dyeing elephant tusks to deter poachers. Someone then turned it in to Change.org petition. Neither posting got much traction, but at some point in the last year, people began posting the image as something that was already being done, often with text added to the photo going into the imaginary details of the procedure, and it seems to have become quite popular in that form.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any articles online supporting this, while I can find articles explaining how it’s not really happening, as well as explanations for why it’s probably impossible or at least impractical.
Interestingly, I did find an article about how one conservation group is doing this with rhino horns. However, the article goes on to explain that this is only possible because rhino horns are made entirely of keratin, a fibrous material that allows the dye from an embedded high pressure device to slowly permeate the entire horn. Elephant tusks are not made of keratin, but non-porous ivory, which presents the possibly insurmountable problem of how you’d get the tusk to thoroughly absorb the dye. And even with the rhinos, they’re experiencing one of the problems mentioned in the articles about why this wouldn’t work with elephants: the animal must be anesthetized in order to apply the dye, and that’s dangerous in and of itself. The rhino article reports that one rhino so far has died just from the anesthesia. (This guy suggests there might be ways to dye the ivory without having to anesthetize the elephant. He’s not a scientist, though, and I can’t find any evidence that anyone’s working on any of his ideas.)
So, this cool, outside-the-box approach to deterring elephant poaching turns out to be wishful thinking on the part of the Internet. There are in fact some interesting high tech attempts being made to supplement the unglamorous and dangerous ground work being done by park rangers and international law enforcement, including drones, DNA databases, and carbon dating, but none of them is a complete solution. Like most of the world’s problems, elephant poaching remains a complex puzzle that must be attacked from many sides and on many levels, requiring the exercise of political will over the course of years and even generations, and may not be completely solvable at all.
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