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Updated ivory identification tool helps to combat illegal wildlife trade

Posted on August, 12 2020

Telling the difference between an elephant, hippo, and warthog may seem like an easy task, even for the youngest wildlife observers. But if you take away their trunks, ears, and snouts and look only at their teeth, distinguishing between these species poses a significant challenge.
The ability to correctly identify these teeth, or ivories, as well as lookalikes made from other natural and synthetic materials, is critical to combat the threats of illegal wildlife trade globally and to allow the trade in legal ivories as well as vegetable-based or synthetic lookalikes, to operate without a hitch.

Of particular interest for identification is elephant ivory, which is in high demand globally for the production of carved trinkets, sculptures, and jewelery. African elephant populations have been decimated by poaching to fuel this trade. In 2016, WWF estimated 20,000 elephants were being killed a year, with poaching numbers peaking in 2011. This number is thankfully declining in recent years, though the threat remains high.

African elephants, along with other ivory-producing species, are protected under international law through CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which regulates the commercial international trade in their parts. To bypass these regulations, ivories are often falsely labelled as other natural or synthetic materials.

“Elephants and other ivory-bearing species found in wildlife trade have been subject to criminal exploitation and their ivories trafficked for decades. The ability to mislead and disguise illegally sourced ivories as either legal or as a different species or material has presented dilemmas for regulators and law enforcers across the globe,” said Crawford Allan, guide editor and senior director, TRAFFIC at WWF US. “The internet has also presented new challenges and has become the front line of illegal trade in elephant ivory. Just as criminals have adapted to marketing products virtually, enforcement and tech companies have adapted in response, in a cat and mouse game,” Allan added.

Fortunately, an updated and expanded ivory identification tool is now available to support not only law enforcement agencies, but also a range of stakeholders including forensic scientists, online technology companies, and wildlife trade management authorities, in differentiating between ivories. The Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes, originally developed in 1991 and last edited in 1999, was jointly developed by CITES, WWF, and TRAFFIC. Forensic experts from the US Fish & Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory provided additional technical input into distinguishing physical, or morphological, properties by which ivory can be identified

This updated guide includes detailed information on how to tell ivories and lookalikes apart through physical characteristics and provides guidance on distinguishing between ivories in trade online, where a significant portion of illegal trade in elephant ivory is now taking place. There is also reprinted information summarizing modern instrumental methods to identify ivories using laboratory equipment and techniques.

“Enforcement officials need rapid, accurate methods to screen for ivory when inspecting shipments and evaluating online ivory sales. This expanded and updated CITES Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes will be a crucial tool in these enforcement efforts,” said author and forensic scientist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory, Barry Baker.

Versions of the Guide will be available in English, Chinese, French and Spanish languages, allowing for further uptake and application globally. 
Elephant tusks stored in secured ivory piles. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Elephant tusks stored away under extreme security measures in the ivory stock pile of the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
© WWF / Folke Wulf