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My immediate response to the intricate carvings in these photos is awe — maybe even admiration. I can't believe they are made by hand from one solid piece of material. With such detail and complexity, I can see why they would be coveted and sold at a high price.

The rub is that the material is ivory, and the cost is way more than just the literal price tag. Poaching elephants for ivory is nothing new — but now, "levels are currently at their worst in a decade," according to the cover story of National Geographic's October issue. The article by Bryan Christy delves deep into the systemic, global problem.

Christy sums it up pretty succinctly:

"Although the world has found substitutes for every one of ivory's practical uses — billiard balls, piano keys, brush handles — its religious use is frozen in amber, and its role as a political symbol persists."

The preciousness of ivory has deep roots all over the world — appearing in Catholic iconography in the Philippines, for example, and Buddhist figurines in Thailand and China. The crux of the issue is revealed when Christy asks a collector if he ever thinks of the animal. "Not at all," he's quoted as replying.

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