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Recently, I've often seen this image claiming that some people are dying elephant tusks to prevent individuals from hunting them. elephant with pink tusks

Has this actually been done? Is it common?

Initially, this seemed a fair idea. However, implementing a staining program seems extremely complicated and, probably, prohibitively expensive.

First of all, the dye should be absolutely unharmful for the elephant and the environment around him; researchers do not know how a different color of the tusks could affect the elephant's life.

The dye should be capable of staining the whole length of the elephant's tusk, which protrudes into the skull. And of course, tusks grow too; dye should obviously be reapplied as soon as new growth reappears: even a small quantity of ivory holds great value to a poacher.

Moreover, a delivery method not requiring anestethics should be found: they are expensive and tranquilizing an animal involves risk to the people and the animal.

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    I wonder if the real question isn't whether dying "animal tusks or horns" is actually being done and is effective? It seems like that's the real ask, which makes the rhino answer below most relevant, but if the question stays limited to elephants, that technically fails to prove anything. (I didn't edit myself cuz I'm not sure that's the OP's intent.) – Jaydles Jul 23 '15 at 16:21
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I cannot speak to the viability of dying tusks, but it does appear that the photo cited in the question is a fake, as noted on the blog staintuskstostopelephantpoaching.wordpress.com.

Here's the original photo for reference:
white elephant

This blog also houses what may be the original source of the proposal, with its first post dated Dec 29, 2012 Could we fight elephant poaching by staining the tusks?, as well as a reasoned explanation of the problems of this approach dated Mar 28, 2013, A conservation biologist’s take on dyeing elephant tusks. To quote from that post (which quotes Dr. Sam Wasser)

Thanks for your note. It’s an interesting idea. The big concern is the time it will take to stain the tusks of 400,000 skittish elephants and the time it will take for the stain to find it’s [sic] way into the tusk. Most likely, permanent stain will have to be delivered by food and grow into the tusk. You can’t immobilize 400,000 elephants to stain their tusks as it is too risky for the elephants and the people doing the immobilizations. Thus, it would take many years to achieve your goals, if it is even possible. Given the urgency of the situation (30,000-45,000 elephants now being killed annually), we need a plan that stops as much of the killing as possible, as soon as possible. (This is, of course, in addition to programs aimed at decreasing demand.) Our program aims to achieve these objectives by using DNA assignment to identify all major poaching hotspots across Africa for targeted law enforcement.

Dr. Samuel Wasser
Director of Center for Conservation Biology
Research Professor, Department of Biology
University of Washington, Seattle

The same blog goes on to discuss different problems developing and administering an effective dye.

I could find no source to suggest this was actually being done anywhere in the wild.

  • This is a very good point, indeed. I will wait to accept this answer to avoid discouraging other interesting replies that could benefit the community. +1! – Lonidard Jul 21 '15 at 9:08
  • The point about staining the full interior of the tusk is what I first thought of. Carved ivory doesn't need to use the full diameter for some uses. – Peter Cordes Jul 24 '15 at 3:29
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    According to Snopes, the same has happened to a picture involving rhino horns. – March Ho Sep 27 '15 at 2:58
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There is at least one organisation that dyes Rhino Tusks pink, although there are also plenty of doctored photographs of that too.

The Rhino Rescue Project has a dye which, while harmless to the rhino, gives a very bad reaction to humans, including nausea and vomiting. The dye renders the horn useless for "medicine" and ornamental use because of this, but needs reapplying every few years.

Here are some actual pictures of this happening to a rhino. It's worth noting that rhino horns are made of a different substance to elephant tusks, so it's still unsure whether a similar undertaking would be appropriate for elephants.

A Rhino that has had the procedure done

Some news articles:

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    Unfortunately, this does not answer the question, which is about elephant tusks, not rhino horns. – Reinstate Monica iamnotmaynard Jul 21 '15 at 14:37
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    While not a direct answer, it does explain how the idea came about. – March Ho Jul 22 '15 at 3:27
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    Dye does not render rhino horns useless as medicine. Rhino horn renders rhino horn useless as medicine. – Scott Jul 22 '15 at 9:57
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    Dye renders the poachers liable to being lynched by the people who bought their horns and got diarrhea, so I guess it's a win-win. – March Ho Jul 22 '15 at 13:55
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    While I admit this doesn't say much about elephant tusks, I was addressing the fact that the concept has been undertaken albeit in rhinos. I have attempted to relate it back to the elephants where possible. This answer allows me to show a picture of what an actual dyed horn looks like to show the difference between the photoshopped elephant picture. At time of writing I also did not have enough points to make a comment. – Ilythya Jul 22 '15 at 14:12

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