Germany’s Research Project to Determine Age and Provenance of Elephant Ivory – Project Status
May 2014, Volume 12-3

In 2010 the German Federal Government initiated via its Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) a research and development project on age and provenance of ivory to whose objectives the CIC assisted readily and in a highly collaborative manner. To this date the project has been rather successful. This article sums up the results so far and the present application spectrum. Owners of ivory within the European Union who want to contribute samples (preferably from Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Uganda) with known origin and/or known age are kindly invited to contact the BfN:

Poaching of African elephants and illicit trade in ivory has accelerated in some African sub regions during the recent years significantly and trafficking in illegal ivory today can be considered being professionalized as never seen before. Well-organized and heavy-armed criminal bands or paramilitary troops do not only endanger elephant populations but also constitute a threat to regional stability, territorial integrity and sustainable social and economic developments within several African countries. International law enforcement, cross-border cooperation and effective forensic methods to uncover the structures and pathways of ivory smuggling and to differentiate illegal from legal ivory in trade are more badly needed than ever before.

African elephants can still be found in 37 range states in Sub-Saharan Africa, but certain populations, mostly in West and Central Africa, hardly exceed a few hundred individuals, highly threatened by increased poaching. At the last continent wide assessment in 2007, the African elephant population was calculated to be at least 472,000 individuals, possibly exceeding 690,000. Following a period of relative stability in the 1990s, a major surge in the illegal ivory trade began since 2009. There had also been a shift in the dynamic of the illegal trade, from many small shipments to an increasing number of very large-scale seizures, as well as a shift in illegal trade routes with the involvement of organized crime. From recent information provided by the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group one has to assume that the yearly death toll of nowadays more than 30.000 elephants passed a continental-wide threshold of sustainability in 2010 and that several populations in Africa are faced now with a serious extinction risk.

Exact methods for the determination of age and geographical origin are essential to meet the unsolved problem of ivory smuggling and can help to avoid the intermixing of legal and illegal ivory, if decisions for a restricted legal trade will be taken in future. Long-term preservation of the constantly declining elephant population of Western and Central Africa will only be possible with a control mechanism that helps to identify the age and geographical provenance of confiscated ivory. Therefore, the African Elephant Action Plan by the African Elephant range states (CITES CoP15 inf. 68) highlights the need for improved law enforcement and management by identifying the origin of seized ivory by using relevant analytic techniques (Activity 1.4.3. of Objective 1).

At present no supporting instrument that meets court standards is available for the CITES members. Therefore, the development of a very exact method for age determination and the set-up of a database for the identification of the origin of ivory will help to better focus enforcement and conservation measures on an international level. The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation responded to this need and initiated the mentioned project, in co-operation with its executing partners, the WWF Germany and two German Universities (University of Regensburg, University of Mainz). The project was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and started in July 2010 and has two parts, i.e. the determination of the origin and the determination of the age of ivory.

The second part was completed in 2012, whereas the first part of the project has been extended last year until December 2016, among others because sufficient samples from important range states such as Zambia, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda are still missing to make the new enforcement tool a highly efficient mean in the fight against illegal ivory trade.

1.       The Determination of the Geographical Origin of Ivory

Forensics can play an important role in the investigation of wildlife crime through identification and profiling of ivory (CITES, 2012). Stable isotope analysis is a technique that is based on the fact that stable isotope signatures in animal tissues reflect those of local food webs and geology. Therefore it can be used for tracing the origin or migration of wildlife. In an attempt to elaborate the predictive ability of stable isotope signatures in ivory, WWF Germany, in co-operation with the University of Mainz, Germany, had been contracted by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) to develop a methodology with which the determination of the geographical origin can be tested.

More than 600 ivory samples from 24 African and six Asian elephant range states were provided between 2009 and 2013 by government authorities in African elephant range states, European museums and many trophy hunters who had been strongly lobbied and motivated to assist by the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC). A large part of the samples (360 pcs.) comes from Botswana, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. The methodology applied to determine the geographical origin of ivory is based on measuring five different stable isotope ratios (Carbon δ13C, Nitrogen δ15N, Oxygenδ18O, Hydrogen δ2H, Sulphurδ34S).

The results achieved so far indicate that the combinations of several isotopic parameters have great potential to provide predictable and complementary markers for estimating the origin of seized elephant ivory. The database for ivory, which in the near future will be made publicly available via the internet (, shall be used as a reference to predict the provenance of ivory of unknown origin. With this new approach it is also possible to distinguish between ivory from elephant populations listed in CITES Appendix I and Appendix II. The reference database was cross-validated and test runs were carried out with ivory seized in Germany and in Sri Lanka last year

It was also possible to identify alleged poaching hot spots at country level. With this approach wildlife authorities will in future be in a better position to direct law enforcement efforts more specifically and distinguish legally derived ivory from illegally sourced ivory along the production and marketing chain.

2.       The Determination of the Age of Ivory

The purpose of this part of the project is to develop a new method for the determination of age, based on isotope analysis. Additional to existing methods such as using the radiocarbon test (14C/C) the new method will combine it with the analysis of a variety of nuclides (90Sr/Ca, 228Th, 232Th and others). Even a very precise dating method like 14C dating shows certain limitations. Though the content of 14C can be determined precisely consuming low amounts of material dating is not unambiguous at certain periods of time. This is due to the shape of the so called „bomb curves“. With such a conventional method the results can be ambiguous, with the year of death not clearly defined (e. g. 1962 and 1980 for the same sample). However when combining this method with the determination of strontium (90Sr ) and thorium the results will be far more accurate. 90Sr is produced at the nuclear fission and was distributed during the global nuclear fallout within the food chains in the sixties of the last century. As alkaline earth element 90Sr behave very similar to calcium and is therefore transferred to calcium containing tissues like ivory. 90Sr can be determined until presence due to its long half life time of about 29 years. The reason is that due to nuclear testing a significantly increased value of 90Sr/Ca is typical for a death between 1960 and 1970. Lower values indicate a death before 1960 or after 1980. A value below the detection limit indicates a death before 1955. By combining the analyses with other nuclides such as thorium (228/232Th) the time of death of an elephant can be determined with a high degree of certainty which makes the method very precise and extremely reliable. The University of Regensburg had been successfully contracted by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) to develop such a precise methodology for the determination of the age of ivory which had been as well tested successfully by analyzing samples from confiscated ivory shipments.

3.       Recent Developments of the Research Project Since 2013

Since the 16th Conference of the Parties to CITES in March 2013 where the German delegation did promote the findings of the project during a side-event (CoP 16 Inf. 19 – ) a couple of new developments have been undertaken to further the objectives of the project, such as heavy lobbying however without much success yet for additional ivory samples from the so-called gap-countries Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and Namibia. Furthermore collaboration with UNODC was established to draft a manual which shall assist Parties in the future to undertake properly collection of samples and to identify respective forensic laboratories to undertake tests. In addition Interpol had asked the FANC for assistance to test on age and spatial origin samples from two major raw ivory confiscations, i.e. one in Sri Lanka in early 2013 and another one in Togo at the beginning of 2014.

The results from the Sri Lanka confiscation revealed interesting data in so far that most of the ivory tested wasn’t from freshly killed elephants and that among others a large proportion originated from the Mozambique/Tanzania border region. The Togo samples are still undergoing testing. Finally with the support by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and with the involvement of several laboratories in North America, Africa, Europe and Asia the development of a standardized testing method by using one and the same samples was recently initiated which should allow in future testing of ivory under the same calibrated methods around the globe. Read more HERE

Author: Prof. Dr. Dietrich Jelden, Head CITES Management Authority, Germany