Ashland lab uncovers secrets in ivory (Oregon, US)

Apr 9, 2019 | News

Nick Morgan, The Mail Tribune

A team of forensic wildlife investigators in Ashland is playing a key role in the prosecution of two Washington men accused of selling carvings made from elephant tusks.

Donald Frank Rooney of Everett, Washington, and Yunhua Chen of Seattle face felony animal trafficking charges alleging they sold the ivory carvings through online outlets, according to a news release issued Tuesday by the Washington Attorney General’s Office.

The Snohomish and King county cases are the first criminal charges prosecuted under Washington’s Animal Trafficking Act, passed by voters in 2015.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland determined that carvings seized in Rooney and Chen’s cases were made from the tusks of threatened elephants from Africa.

Rooney was charged earlier this week in Snohomish County Superior Court on accusations he sold at least one Japanese-style “netsuke” figurine made of ivory to an undercover Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife detective on Oct. 31, 2017, after the detective allegedly found Rooney through a coded Craigslist post, according to court documents.

The attorney general’s office said it seized more than 1,600 items suspected to be made of ivory from Rooney’s manufactured home.

The wildlife forensics lab in Ashland determined that one of the three sculptures Rooney allegedly sold for $100 each to the undercover detective had originated from an elephant from Africa, according to Washington prosecutors. 
Tests on two other sculptures — one described as “kabuki with a rotating face” and the other as “old man holding mask” — were “morphologically inconclusive,” according to court documents.

Chen is accused of selling an ivory figurine to a buyer in Metairie, Louisiana, who paid $1,305 for it on eBay last July, according to court documents. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agents seized the statue in Louisiana last fall and sent it to Ashland, where the crime lab determined it was made from African elephant ivory, with walrus tusk at its base.

Ken Goddard, who heads the Southern Oregon lab, said he couldn’t get into specifics of Rooney and Chen’s cases while they’re pending, but he said that reaching the lab’s conclusions took the efforts of different forensics investigators.

Ashland morphologist Rachel Jacobs determined that a carving Rooney allegedly sold, which was shaped like three men with a bowl, came from a living elephant species, not from an extinct mammoth, based on the placement and shape of tiny tubules found in cross sections of the tusk material.

They’re known as “Schreger lines,” according to Goddard, who said that he and deputy lab director Ed Espinoza developed the test in the early days of the lab, which has been in Ashland since 1988.

Elephant and mammoth tusks are chemically similar, Goddard said, but he and Espinoza figured out that elephant tusks have different shapes of tubules running down the length of their tusks compared to certain extinct species.

A cross section of the material makes their findings obvious, according to Goddard. If the lines cross at angles of less than 90 degrees, it is a mammoth or mastodon tusk. If the Schreger lines cross at angles greater than 120 degrees, resembling the shape of a roof drawing, the evidence points to elephant tusk. 

Determining the type of elephant is up to DNA tests, according to Goddard, but ivory investigators don’t have much of the genetic material to work with compared to blood samples or other types of animal tissue.

“That’s trickier,” Goddard said. “We’d much rather use the Schreger lines.”

Investigators tend to find more DNA close to the elephant’s gum line, Goddard said.

Isolating and amplifying the DNA was up to Brian C. Hamlin, a forensic scientist with more than 20 years in the lab’s genetics section. Homicide investigators have similar challenges gathering DNA from tooth samples, Hamlin said.

Hamlin starts his tests by cleaning the ivory’s surface using bleach and sterile water, drilling into the ivory and dissolving the shavings in a chemical solution.

Using chemical reactions and automated processes, Hamlin separates the DNA from the mineral portions of the sample.

“What we end up with is generally pure DNA,” Hamlin said.

The purified DNA gets run through a sequencer, and the sample’s reading is compared with those of known elephant species the lab has on file.

According to court documents in Rooney’s case, DNA from one of the carvings matched that of the species Loxodonta africana, a threatened species better known as the African bush elephant.

Hamlin said he never starts an investigation with “an agenda” or any preconceived notions.

“The science and the agency have a story to tell, and I’m just trying to tell that story,” Hamlin said.

Oregon passed a law banning ivory similar to Washington’s in 2016. Other states that prohibit ivory and rhino horn trafficking include California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey and New York.

Hamlin said laws are changing and he is prepared for “an uptick in cases.”

“We’ve got a pretty standard technique that we’ve dialed in, and it works well,” he said.

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