Tooth for a tooth: with forensics methods on the track of ivory
February 2013, Volume 11-1

In many African countries the international ivory trade has led to a dramatic population decline since the 1980s. To protect the African elephant populations, the international community in 1989 listed the species on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and thus banned all international commercial trade in ivory. CITES only allows so-called one-off sales and does not permit the free trade with ivory products. Thanks to the rigorous and effective prohibition of trade protection measures, elephant populations have recovered in some countries in southern Africa. The international trade ban therefore experiences growing criticism from countries with growing elephant populations. A main argument against lifting the trade ban refers to the difficulty of distinguishing between legal and illegal ivory in the markets, so that the legal ivory trade would provide a cover for smuggling. Forensic methods could find a remedy. For the determination of origin of elephant ivory various methods are offered: optical microscopy and spectroscopy are for example the non-destructive methods. They are useful to differentiate elephant-ivory and other materials, like mammoth, hippopotamus or plastics, but fail completely for identifying origin. The analysis of stable isotopes and DNA on the other side is non-destructive, but offers a high spatial resolution. On behalf of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and with support of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) scientists develop a reference database for the origin of elephant ivory using stable isotopes. They present the first results of the isotope method and report on the current status of the database in an article in the TRAFFIC bulletin Vol. 24/No.2 (page 56). See: