Lancaster research helping to prevent the illegal ivory trade

Around 55 African elephants a day are killed for their ivory according to the World Wildlife Fund
Around 55 African elephants a day are killed for their ivory according to the World Wildlife Fund

Research at Lancaster has developed a new way of identifying ivory tusks from mammoths or elephants as part of efforts to stymy the illegal trade.

Around 55 African elephants a day are killed for their ivory according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The research was carried out by Dr Rebecca Shepherd, formerly of Lancaster Medical School and now at Bristol School of Anatomy, and Dr Jemma Kerns of Lancaster Medical School.

Dr Shepherd said: "By making it easier to tell the difference between elephant and mammoth ivory, we can prevent illegal ivory from being traded under the guise of legal ivory.

“In turn, this can deter those willing to sell ivory from animals unlawfully poached, and make trading elephant ivory less desirable.”

Most countries worldwide have implemented bans on the trade of elephant ivory, though these often have loopholes for antique ivory and items of cultural significance.

The UK has one of the toughest bans on elephant ivory sales in the world with trade in elephant teeth and tusks made illegal, punishable by fines of up to £250,000 or up to five years in prison.

But it is not illegal to sell ivory from animals that are already extinct, such as the Woolly Mammoth, with a lucrative industry built around traders who visit the Siberian plains in summer to retrieve ivory from thawing mammoths.

It is possible to tell the difference between elephant and mammoth ivory in its natural state, but once samples have become worked or carved this becomes much harder.

The gold standard methods of identification recommended by The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for assessing the legality of ivory predominantly focus on DNA and mtDNA analysis and isotope analysis – methods that are expensive, destructive and time-consuming.

Dr Shepherd said: “Our research uses a non-destructive, laser-based technique to identify biochemical differences in the tusks from elephants and mammoths.”

The technique, known as Raman spectroscopy, has been widely used in the field of bone biology. The technology is widely available, and already used at customs centres worldwide in the identification of powders and chemicals.

Raman spectroscopy works by shining a high energy light at a sample:

· The molecular bonds in the sample temporarily absorbs the energy from the light, and then releases it.

· The amount of energy released by the bonds is either slightly more or slightly less than the original energy

· Different types of molecular bonds have a different ‘fingerprint’ of energy that is released.

“It is these differences that allows us to use Raman spectroscopy to differentiate between materials. Although mammoths and elephants are from the same family tree, there will be small differences in the biochemistry of their tusks.”

The research team have been awarded an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Award to work with the Worldwide Wildlife Fund Hong Kong to expand the Lancaster University database of ivory samples and create software that can use Raman spectroscopy data from ivory of unknown origin and suggest from which species it has been taken.

On completion of this project, researchers plan to release the software created for free use worldwide.

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