The most recent in a string of alarming contraband ivory seizures in Hong Kong over the last few months has yielded 779 elephant tusks weighing over 1 ton. The tusks were discovered in a container originating from Kenya with paperwork stating that the container was full of architectural stones. After Hong Kong customs x-rayed the container, their suspicions were alerted. No-one has been arrested to date.
Hunting or poaching elephants is of course illegal in Kenya, as is trade in poached elephant ivory. Nevertheless, over 1200 tusks valued at over US$ million were seized last October from 2 containers, one from Kenya and the other from Tanzania. In November, 1.6 tons of illegal ivory tusks were found in another container form Tanzania. In 2011, almost 40 tons of illegal elephant ivory was seized worldwide.
Fetching prices of up to US$1,000 a pound (i.e. 0.45 kilos), elephant ivory poaching is achieving record levels. The main markets are said to be in China and Thailand where it is used as an ornamental product (e.g. chess pieces, jewelry, finely carved objects, smoking pipes, probably no longer as piano keys but possibly as inlay on other musical instruments).
There are many other sources of animal ivory - like walruses, the rhinoceros and narwhals - but elephant ivory has always been the most sought after due to its texture, softness, and its lack of a tough outer enamel type coating.
A commonly used and natural alternative said to be excellent, perhaps better than elephant ivory, for carving finely is the tagua nut which comes from the Phytelephas Aequatorialis Macrocarpa palm tree also commonly called yarina in Peru and jaruma in Brazil. The tagua trees fronds are used in the Amazon as roofing thatch and are said to be relatively fire-resistant. When fresh, the tagua fruits can be eaten (or drunk) and need to be left out in the sun to solidify.
Source: The Guardian and New York Times