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Blog entry by the San Diego Zoo about Pro Pueblo

Source http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/2009/07/29/tagua-nut-treasures/

I am not artistic at all, but I love to watch people who are! This summer, both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park have artisans from around the world demonstrating their skills. The other day I was mesmerized as Leonor Alfonso, a tagua nut carver from Ecuador, demonstrated her craft in front of the Zoo's Treehouse Trader gift shop. Using a sander and Dremel tool, Leonor can take a plain-looking brown tagua nut and transform it into a turtle just emerging from its shell, a hummingbird sipping nectar, or an iguana on the prowl. It's amazing to watch her in action!



Tagua "nuts" are really large seeds from the tagua palm. They are often called "vegetable ivory" for their ivory-like color and texture. Real ivory comes from the trunk of an elephant or the tooth of a hippo and is therefore quite expensive, as the animal does not willingly donate these items! Tagua nuts, on the other hand, are dropped by the palm and picked up from the ground with no harm done to the tree. They range in size from a grape to a large tomato.

Tagua palms grow wild near Leonor's small town (population around 150!) of Recinto Pagiza, a 9-hour bus trip from Ecuador's capitol, Quito. The villagers didn't realize that the tagua nuts that were so plentiful could be turned into a sustainable profit until a fair trade organization called ProPueblo introduced them to the possibility. Leonor told me she welcomed the chance to learn how to carve tagua nuts into jewelry, animal-shaped figurines, and even chess pieces.



Leonor is constantly honing her skills to improve her carvings. For example, many of her ideas for animals come from photos in magazines. When she arrived at the San Diego Zoo and saw our herd of giraffes, she realized she hadn't been carving them accurately: she had been making their hind ends too large and boxy! Now that she's at the Zoo for the summer, Leonor has some new animal inspirations and has come to love our "cute and cuddly" giant pandas and our "impressive" silverback gorilla. She enjoys meeting Zoo visitors and showing them how she can turn rock-hard tagua nuts into whimsical frogs, armadillos, camels, macaws, and more. If you like, she can carve a name into any of the pieces or if you have a special request, just bring a photo of the animal you'd like her to make. Leonor has one word of caution: Don't try to eat these works of art: tagua nuts are rock hard and have absolutely no taste!

Leonor says she is so grateful for this opportunity to be at the Zoo this summer, doing what she loves and helping to support her family back home using such a sustainable resource. She's now busy carving panda cubs in anticipation of a successful panda birth next month. I hope you can come by soon to watch this talented artisan at work, Tuesdays through Sundays, now through September 6. You'll be amazed!


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