Are Walrus Tusks Ivory? Everything You Need to Know

When discussing ivory, a material known for its beauty and cultural significance, one might first think of elephant tusks. However, ivory can come from a variety of animals, each with its own unique characteristics and applications. One such animal is the walrus, whose tusks are often a topic of curiosity and interest.

But are walrus tusks considered ivory?

The answer is yes, walrus tusks are considered ivory. Walrus tusks are elongated upper canine teeth made of dentine with an outer layer of cementum. This is the same material that elephant tusks are composed of, which is commonly referred to as ivory.

What Are Walrus Tusks Made Of?

Walrus tusks, which are indeed a form of ivory, consist primarily of elongated canine teeth. These unique tusks are composed of several materials that contribute to their strength and durability:

  • Dentine: The bulk of a walrus’s tusk is made from dentine, a dense, bony tissue that provides the necessary firmness for the animals’ various activities.
  • Cementum: This layer envelops the outside of the tusks, serving as protection and adding to their resilience.
  • Osteodentine: Within the dentine is osteodentine, a specialized fibrous protein that lends additional strength and stiffness.

Due to their composition, walrus tusks are incredibly sturdy and possess the durability to resist breaking. Their resilience is so profound that they can handle immense stress, such as pulling ropes as thick as an adult’s arm without fracturing.

Notably, the unique structure and materials of walrus tusks make them a valuable and desired commodity, often used in carvings and various trade items. However, their importance to walrus survival underscores the need for sustainable practices in any trade involving walrus ivory.

Do Walrus Tusks Qualify As Ivory?

Yes, walrus tusks do qualify as ivory. The defining characteristic of ivory is its composition—it’s composed of a hard white substance known as dentine. In walruses, this dentine is present in their elongated upper canines, commonly known as tusks. As animals grow, their tusks continue to lengthen, contributing to their prominent appearance and the inherent value of the material.

The dentine in walrus tusks has the desired properties characteristic of ivory, such as hardness and ability to be finely carved. Its durability and ability to hold intricate details make it a preferred material for artisans to fashion into decorative items and artwork. This has established walrus tusks as a valuable commodity in the historical and modern-day trade of ivory goods.

Historically, the use of walrus tusks as a source of ivory has a noteworthy place in various cultures. For example, they have an important place in the cultures and economies of Arctic indigenous peoples.

These tusks have been, and to some extent continue to be, transformed into items of both practical use and aesthetic value. Their carving ability and the finesse with which they can be worked allow for detailed ornamentation and intricate designs that have been valued across different societies.

In summary, walrus tusks have ivory’s definitive composition and desired properties. Their unique cultural significance and history of fine craftsmanship solidify their place in the broader ivory category.

How Is the Ivory From Walrus Tusks Different Than Elephant Tusks?

Elephant tusks

Walrus ivory comes from the two elongated canine teeth of walruses, which can grow up to one meter long in adult male Pacific walruses. In contrast, elephant ivory comes from the two upper incisors of elephants, which can reach up to 3.5 meters long in African elephants.

A key difference lies in the availability and regulation. Walrus ivory faces fewer trade restrictions compared to elephant ivory, which has been heavily regulated and banned in many countries due to threats to elephant populations. Only Alaska Natives are permitted to harvest walruses and walrus ivory under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Meanwhile, African elephant ivory imports and exports are banned internationally.

Visually, walrus ivory can be distinguished from elephant ivory by its grainy core surrounded by a smooth outer layer in cross-section. The core has a marbled appearance absent in elephant ivory. Elephant ivory cross sections display a series of intersecting lines forming angles greater than 120 degrees, while mammoth ivory has angles less than 90 degrees.

Additionally, walrus ivory tends to be less expensive and is favored by artisans for carving due to its strength, resistance to cracking, and ease of working with it. This porous appearance hides the durability of walrus ivory. The legal trade of walrus ivory also supports Indigenous artists and communities in Alaska that rely on this resource economically.

So, key differences between elephant and walrus ivory include regulation, availability, visual grain patterns, carving properties, and cultural/economic significance. Proper identification and responsible trading practices are necessary to prevent illegal ivory from entering markets.

Is the Ivory Trade in Walrus Tusks Legal?

Walrus tusks, indeed, produce a type of ivory. Unlike the global ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory, the rules around walrus ivory are more lenient, particularly within certain jurisdictions. Walrus ivory trade is, in many cases, considered legal, especially in terms of domestic commerce within countries.

However, specific regulations can vary by region and circumstances. For example, native communities, such as Alaska Natives, are often permitted to harvest walrus for subsistence and can legally sell ivory as byproducts Ivory Ban Hurts Alaska Natives Who Legally Carve Walrus Tusks – NPR.

  • Export restrictions: Some restrictions apply to the international trade of marine mammal parts, meaning that while walrus tusks can be traded domestically, exporting them may require permits or may be subject to bans in certain countries.
  • U.S. states with bans: A select number of states have enacted broader regulations that extend to walrus ivory. States such as California, Hawaii, and New York have bans that may include walrus ivory in their scope.

It’s essential for traders and crafters to consult with legal advice and confirm their activities conform with the applicable laws and regulations to ensure the conservation of wildlife is respected and that their trade practices are lawful.


  1. Structure of ivory. PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18157860.
  2. Alaska Native Handicrafts/Marine Mammals. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/Alaska-Native-handicrafts.

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