In 1989 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the use of ivory in order to protect endangered elephants. This greatly affected the livelihoods of artisans in India who had been working with ivory for generations. When the use of ivory was banned, the artisans began to use buffalo and camel bones as a substitute in order to sustain a living and keep their traditions and skills alive. Bone is not a ‘new’ material however, but has been used for centuries by various cultures to make tools, musical instruments, spiritual artifacts, jewelry, paint pigments, and glue; the artisans in India have merely manipulated the material to suit specific demands of international buyers.
Unlike ivory for which elephants were killed, buffalos and camels are not killed in order to obtain the bone. The bone is taken from buffalos in slaughterhouses in Muslim communities (as it is illegal to kill cows in India because they are sacred to the Hindu religion), as well as from buffalo and camel that die a natural death in the farming industry. The bone therefore, is a by-product of other industries. It is also important to note that although the bone industry only utilizes the leg bones of the buffalo and camel because the pieces are large and therefore require the least amount of labor to manipulate, the other parts of the skeleton are used in other industries- hence, no waste is generated.
Although the bone industry started by replicating ivory products, it grew to include a plethora of other categories of products from jewelry, to lamp bases, to boxes, to furniture and other various home artifacts. What is different is that unlike ivory which is solid and can therefore be carved, bone is hollow. In order to work with it, the artisans have to cut it into tiles. The tiles are either used as cladding on wooden frameworks of objects, or glued together to form a solid block and then is carved into. The art of carving however, is dying out as people are not willing to pay for the high labor costs. In fact, buyers demand extremely low prices, resulting in the exploitation of the artisans.
Bone is a nautral material and therefore is not harmful to the environment at any point in its life cycle. Its only negtive impact is on the workers- because they do not wear any respiratory protection, the fine dust that is created when cutting/sanding/polishing, affects their respiratory system. This could easily be prevented if they could afford the protection they need.
A revitalization of the traditional Indian animal bone craft would serve not only to improve the lives of the skilled artisans, but also to allow for a product whose life-cycle is 100% environmentally sustainable.
By targeting the local Indian market, I will eliminate the monetary and energy costs of shipping, as well as eliminate the risk of one economy depending on another.