U Researchers Find That Poachers Continue to Fuel the Illegal Ivory Market

elephants Kamryn Broschinsky

The United States and China have the largest markets for ivory in the world. Despite their cooperative efforts to regulate the illegal trade of ivory, sales on the black market have been booming. Researchers at the U found that most of this ivory is likely sourced from recently poached elephants.

Using radiocarbon ivory dating and genetic analysis, Thure Cerling and Lesley Chesson examined 14 large ivory seizures made by law enforcement between 2002 and 2014 to determine when and where poachers were killing elephants.

“These are large seizures, literal tons of ivory, moving across huge distances at quick rates,” Chesson said. “However, law enforcement is probably only touching a small fraction of ivory on the market.”

Researchers employed the same technology used for solving a wide variety of mysteries, from dating Neanderthal artifacts to cracking cold cases, to establish the average “lag time” between the date the ivory was collected and the date it was seized. After 231 samples were collected, only one piece of ivory was returned with a “lag time” greater than six years. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that more than 90 percent of the ivory analyzed was from elephants killed less than three years before the ivory was obtained.

The results refuted speculation that most of the ivory on the market was “old” ivory, or ivory from before the 1990 international ban by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, leaked by corrupt governments. The source of the ivory “makes a big difference as to how quickly elephant populations are becoming extinct,” Cerling said.

According to Chesson, this information helps them discover the structure of the trade networks. Cerling and Chesson determined that the ivory is coming from a relatively small number of people, all of whom are most likely involved with the same organization.

“These people are all using the same ships and the same ports,” Cerling said. “A lot of the seized material is branded with the same marks.”

The information provided by the study brings regulators closer to stopping the illegal ivory trade. As it points out the seriousness of the active poaching problem, the study tells law enforcement where to focus their limited resources. The research even shows enforcing agencies in which areas they need to direct their efforts.

“We’re beginning to recognize some movement of where poaching hotspots are,” Cerling said. “Elephants are moving to avoid getting killed.”

Between 2002 and 2011 the world’s elephant population was reduced by 62 percent. Experts estimate that the number of elephants killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012 was approximately 100,000. The demand is fueled by China’s economic boom, and poachers continue to work as ivory prices rise.

“We’re continuously finding out more about how these traders operate,” Cerling said. “There’s a lot of work to be done on the ground to prevent the killing of elephants.”