Hand carved tagua animal
These animals are carved out of vegetable ivory or tagua in Ecuador. Tagua nuts come from the female Tagua Palm (Phytelephas aequatorialis) which grows wild in the rainforests of Ecuador and other Latin American countries. The nuts are produced in a spiny seed pod containing anything from 50 to 90 nuts. They are carefully packaged in a sweet pulpy mass until the seed pod ripens, falls and releases the nuts. Insects then eat this natural “packaging” leaving the nut free. The rest of the plant can also be used – the shoots are cooked and eaten, the seeds are also eaten when ripe and the leaves are used for thatching, even the roots have medicinal qualities. When the nuts are polished they have the same characteristics as ivory, which is why the tagua nut is known as "vegetable ivory." The commercial use of tagua provides an important economic incentive for keeping the rainforests in their natural state rather than clearing them for agriculture or logging. The popularity of tagua dates back to the 1920´s when it was used on a large scale, to produce buttons. As these got replaced by plastic, the demand dwindled and only in the last few decades has it gradually become popular again. The sizes of these animals vary but they average at 4-5cm high and 4-5cm wide.