A New Guide Helps Law Enforcement Identify Ivory in the Digital Age

Image: Will Burrard-Lucas/WWF-US

According to the World Wildlife Fund, behind every piece of ivory—whether it be a full tusk or carved trinket—is a dead elephant. Poachers kill about 20,000 elephants every single year for their tusks, which are then traded illegally in the international market to eventually end up as ivory trinkets. This trade is mostly driven by demand for ivory in parts of Asia.

One of the tools necessary in helping to stop the ivory trade is the ability by law enforcement to identify ivory and where it’s coming from. That’s why WWF recently launched a new guide for identifying the most commonly found ivories in partnership with CITES and TRAFFIC. As Mongabay explained, the guide’s authors say they hope it will arm customs officials and other law enforcement officers across the world with the ability to recognize various forms of authentic ivory from cheaper knockoffs made from palm seeds, tagua nuts, resin, or bone.

Why This Matters: As Crawford Allan, Senior Director at WWF and Giavanna Grein, Senior Program Officer at WWF told Our Daily Planet,

“The original guide was adequate and fit for purpose for a long time and the basic science of the morphological analysis did not change substantively.”

Adding that,

“In recent years there was an increase in new types of synthetic ivory, and with global warming more mammoth ivory was becoming accessible and entering an expanding market that was demanding ivory and ivory substitutes.”

Ultimately this meant that it was becoming more difficult to identify elephant ivory and new guidance was greatly needed. 

The Ivory Trade Evolves: As WWF explained, African elephants declined in massive numbers in the 1970s and 1980s because of poaching for the illegal ivory trade, so the international trade was banned by CITES in 1989.

  • Some elephant populations have begun to recover, but poaching continues to be a problem in many areas.
  • CITES allowed a limited export of ivory stocks to Japan in 1999, but only from certain African countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe) where elephants are relatively numerous.
  • It is still illegal to bring ivory back to the United States.

But now in the digital age, identifying where ivory is being bought and sold is much more difficult. Online marketplace platforms like Google, Yahoo, and eBay, Amazon, and Craigslist are having a difficult time keeping the sale of ivory off of their sites. Ivory smugglers and black market dealers use code words for ivory leading to a perpetual game of whack-a-mole between tech companies and sellers on their marketplaces, as National Geographic reported.

This new ivory identification guide can help companies and their enforcement teams know what to look for in elephant ivory listings online, which is important with the growing trade through e-commerce, social media and search platforms. 

Additionally, as Allan and Grein told us, the major change in smuggling over the past 20 years has been the marked increase in large scale, illicit shipments of ivory tusks from African elephant range states via sea freight to Asia, predominantly China. 

  • Identification of whole and large rough-cut pieces of tusk does not usually require an identification guide, as they are very obvious and distinct. 
  • But in recent years more smuggling of items carved in Africa and smuggled in smaller shipments and in luggage has been identified by TRAFFIC the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Legal Ivory Loophole: In international trade, there are still some exceptions that allow the sale of ivory to continue. As NatGeo explained,

  • African countries were granted special permission to auction stockpiles of seized tusks worth millions of dollars.
  • In the United States, regulations allow ivory to be legally imported into the country as hunting trophies and permit pre-ban ivory to be traded across state lines.
  • The Chinese government allows a portion of ivory from its own stockpile to be sold each year.

The problem becomes that traffickers take advantage of the legal trade to launder their illegal wares, which are then presented to buyers as legitimate products. A tool to help identify ivory, the like one released by WWF and partner, only helps strengthen these international trade laws and regulations.

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