Is that ivory from an elephant or a nut? A new guide shows how to tell

Aug 15, 2020 | News

By Ashoka Mukpo, Mongabay


  • The guide was produced by WWF, TRAFFIC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the CITES Secretariat.
  • The last update was in 1999, with this version including high-resolution, detailed photographs that show the differences between various forms of ivory and other substitutes.
  • A section examines online marketplaces and auctions, a growing branch of the illegal ivory trade.
  • Translations will be made into English, Spanish, and French, with CITES-compliant governments tasked with distributing it to law enforcement and customs officials.

Governments and businesses looking to crack down on the illegal ivory trade have a new tool in their hands, courtesy of WWF, TRAFFIC, and the CITES Secretariat. For the first time in more than two decades, the groups have updated a guide meant to make it easier for law enforcement and e-commerce monitors to identify ivory and determine what species it originated from.

“The trade in different types of new artificial substitutes for ivory, synthetics and plastics and so on, has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and it’s gotten far more difficult to identify the differences in some of those carvings from those that are the real elephant ivory,” Crawford Allan, a senior director at TRAFFIC and editor of the new guide, said in an interview with Mongabay.

Produced by conservation NGO WWF, wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC, and trade regulator CITES, the “Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes” updates the 1999 version with a modern layout and design, tips for spotting illegal ivory in online auctions, and high-resolution digital images of telltale signs that a carving is made from elephant ivory. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was also involved in writing prior versions of the guide, contributed instructions on how to run forensic analysis of ivory samples in a laboratory.

An example of carved elephant ivory and how it was identified from the guide.

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.

“We’re particularly keen on this being used by those responsible for enforcing regulations, whether that’s formal customs officers, police officers, or wildlife law enforcement officers, those are one of the main audiences for this guide,” Allan said.

Among the species covered in the guide are elephants, walruses, hippos, and whales. A section of the guide provides detail on how to differentiate elephant from mammoth ivory, which Allan says has become more common as climate change melts permafrost and exposes the skeletons of the extinct species in Siberia and elsewhere.

The guide also explains the best methods to recognize online auctions of elephant ivory and provides examples of phrases and tricks sellers use to evade detection. Giavanna Grein, a senior program officer at TRAFFIC, told Mongabay that these auctions have become a major hub in the black market for ivory and other wildlife products.

An example of a suspicious online auction from the guide.

“We’ve really seen a shift first largely to e-commerce platforms and increasingly to social media, and it’s still very easy to find and readily available,” she said.

The secretariat of CITES, an international agreement that restricts or outlaws the trade in certain types of wildlife products, says member states have been informed that the new guide is available online. Some will be given hard copies of the guide, which will be produced in English, French, and Spanish. For the most part, governments will be responsible for ensuring that the guide is distributed or otherwise made available to law enforcement agencies, customs officials, and others tasked with halting illegal ivory sales.

While corruption across various smuggling routes remains a major obstacle in cracking down on the illegal ivory trade, Haruko Okuso, chief of knowledge management and outreach services at the CITES Secretariat, says the new guide will be a big help for law enforcement who might otherwise struggle to identify the source of carved or raw products.

“Accurately and systematically identifying ivory can be a genuine challenge for officials all over the world, as it requires specific skills, knowledge and technology,” she told Mongabay in an email. “Facilitating this step will contribute to strengthening the capacity of enforcement officials around the world in focusing their efforts on all areas of law enforcement.”

After hitting a grim peak of as many as 40,000 elephants killed in 2011 for their tusks, the numbers have been steadily declining since then, to around 10,000-15,000 per year. While Allan says that figure is “obviously still too much,” he adds that international efforts to halt the trade have had an impact.

“Overall the trends are declining for elephant ivory, roughly speaking as a generalization, and therefore there are signs that the regulation, enforcement, and awareness combined is starting to pay off,” he said. “We’re hopeful that trend will continue.”

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