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Science & Space

Could plant ivory save elephants?

By Lara Farrar for CNN

Conservationist organizations support the use of the plant ivory.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Every few months, a special courier service delivers several large brown boxes to a small, discreet redbrick flat west of London.

Carefully concealed amidst the safety of bubble wrap and packing tape rest 20,000 chips of imported ivory.

Just behind an indiscriminate latched wooden gate, Antonio DeMendoza and his wife, Maria Elena Cabrera, eagerly await the ivory's arrival in their workshop.

After unpacking the pieces, Maria Elena and her sister, Maria Carolina, craft the material into elegant necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Sometimes the sisters combine the ivory with gold and silver. Occasionally, they mix it with sapphires, rubies or other precious stones.

Antonio then takes the pieces to various markets around London hoping to sell, anticipating interest, and expecting to educate someone about a product that might help to save elephants and rain forests.

Three years ago Antonio and Maria lived in Colombia. Antonio served as president of a multinational technology firm, and Maria worked as general manager of an e-commerce company.

In 2004, Antonio and Maria founded DeMEC Limited, a jewellery company specializing in vegetable ivory, an organic material found in South American rainforests.

Maria designs, Antonio manages, and together the couple believe their efforts will protect elephants, preserve rainforests, and aid local economies of indigenous South Americans.

"This is a way to support people in Colombia as well as a lot of other people working with vegetable ivory while hopefully saving elephants," said Antonio. "Our philosophy is to give back to nature what she has been giving to us."

And, nature has been generously giving vegetable ivory for quite a while.

According to Anders Barfod, an associate professor and palm expert at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, vegetable ivory, also known as tagua, is the seed endosperm of the ivory nut palm commonly found in coastal rainforests of Ecuador and Peru.

"The endosperm is like in a coconut," he said. "It is first liquid and when it matures it gets hard."

When the endosperm hardens, it obtains characteristics reminiscent of animal ivory.

"It looks like ebony or plastic but it is nicer than plastic," Barfod explained, "This is why it is called vegetable ivory. It has rings like growth rings so it looks a little bit like real ivory."

Major commodity

Historically, Barfod said, German traders first discovered vegetable ivory in South America at the end of the 19th century. The traders introduced the material to the European market where it was mainly used to produce buttons.

"By the 1920s and 30s it really boomed," Barfod said. "Trade statistics tell us about 20 percent of all buttons at one point were made from vegetable ivory so it was a major commodity."

Then came the advent of plastic. "The ivory was replaced by plastics because they are produced much cheaper," Barfod explained. "It was forgotten for a while and only produced as little souvenirs and things."

Now the vegetable ivory might be slowly making a comeback. According to Sir Ghillean Prance, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, conservationist organizations are encouraging the use of the plant ivory to save both rainforests and elephants.

"It can be sustainedly harvested from rainforests and what we are looking for is trying to conserve rainforests," Prance said. "And it can be used for most things that ivory is used for."

One organization promoting the ivory's use is Rainforest Concern in London. "We have been encouraging local people to harvest the nuts," Peter Bennett, director of the organization, said.

"It has helped communities to preserve rainforests because it only grows in dense forests and is a strong argument for people to keep their forests."

However, Bennett said he does not think the vegetable ivory serves as a viable replacement for animal ivory.

"I think they are very different materials," he said. "I know this argument that perhaps people wouldn't buy ivory if they could buy vegetable ivory because it looks so similar but I think it is a completely different market in my opinion."

However, Anthony Power, a London-based jewellery designer who worked with elephant ivory prior to an international trade ban, said he does think the vegetable ivory offers a viable alternative to animal ivory.

"I don't like working with ivory knowing the environmental costs of it so ivory is a complete no-no," Power said. "But if I wanted to design something that provided what ivory does then this is an alternative."

Power noted the vegetable ivory has a different grain and hardness than animal ivory.

"It is not as grainy as ivory and in fact doesn't have the grain that ivory has," he said. "It is quite a lot tougher. It is a very hard material for an organically grown piece."

Regardless of vegetable ivory's similarities to animal ivory, Antonio insists he and his wife Maria are selling the product for a different reason.

"We grew up with this material, and we consider it absolutely amazing," Antonio said.

"We are using the tagua to create pieces no one else has imagined before while also not damaging the Amazon or nature in any way. Some people spend years and millions of pounds trying to discover a product they can use widely and we already have one."

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