It has long been illegal to trade internationally in ivory from Asian elephants. Only about 43,000 are left in the wild, and they face threats from habitat loss and conflicts with people.
Another 13,000 or so are domesticated, helping move heavy objects or carry people. In Thailand, it’s legal to buy and sell ivory from domesticated elephants that live in the country.
That little loophole has created a big problem: It gives sellers the opportunity to pass off illegal ivory as above-board because, absent DNA analysis, there’s no sure way to tell the difference. As a result, Thailand’s ivory market has been flooded with illegal African elephant ivory.
That could change very soon. A new scanner developed by a team of Thai scientists will supposedly be able to tell, on the spot, whether a piece of ivory is from an Asian elephant (potentially legal) or an African elephant (definitely not legal).
The hand-held scanner uses x-ray fluorescence to “read” details in tusks, according to an abstract of the study.
The study on the scanner technology has not yet been published, but team leader Korakot Nganvongpanit, head of Chiang Mai University’s Department of Veterinary Biosciences and Veterinary Public Health, announced the technology at a press conference on Thursday.
The scanner, according to Nganvongpanit, has a 93 percent accuracy rate. He said it scans for 10 different earth minerals, which indicate the geographical source of a tusk. The data are fed to analysis software, which then pushes the results to an app on an Android phone in as little as four minutes.
“In a place like Thailand, it would be very useful,” said the University of Washington’s Samuel Wasser, a pioneer in using DNA analysis to identify poaching hotspots.
A 2014 study by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization, found a sharp rise in ivory items for sale in Thailand between January 2013 and July 2014, far more than the estimated legal supply. That suggests most of the ivory for sale is illegal—and likely from African elephants. A number of large seizures of African ivory further demonstrates that Thailand’s trade is helping fuel the poaching crisis in which some 30,000 African elephants are killed each year.
Thailand bolstered its enforcement this year, passing a law in January requiring legal ivory to be registered and establishing a forensic lab to perform DNA testing of ivory. One of the goals is to get a handle on just how much illegal African ivory is being sold within the country.
But a tool that would allow local law enforcement to quickly and easily tell if a piece of ivory is from an African elephant could make a big difference on the ground.
“A non-destructive, reliable, rapid method for non-specialists to distinguish Asian and African elephant ivory could have significant impact,” said TRAFFIC spokesman Richard Thomas.
This story has been updated to clarify that the ivory trade is legal in Thailand only for ivory from domesticated Thai elephants.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.