The overwhelming majority of ivory seized in recent years came from elephants that were killed by poachers less than three years prior to the attempted sale, according to new research published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
According to Thure Cerling, a professor of geology, geophysics and biology at the University of Utah, and his colleagues, radiocarbon dating found that approximately 90% of the more than 230 elephant ivory specimens seized as part of 14 different operations from 2002 through 2014 came from animals that had died less than three years before the ivory was confiscated.
“This indicates that the assumption of recent elephant death for mortality estimates of African elephants is correct: Very little “old” ivory is included in large ivory shipments from Africa,” the authors wrote. In fact, only one of the samples tested was found to be more than six years of age, based the results of Carbon-14 measurements conducted by Cerling and his fellow researchers.
In most cases, between six and 35 months passed between when the elephants were killed and the confiscation of the ivory, with specimens from east Africa tending to make it into shipments more quickly, according to CBC reports. The study contradicts suggestions that the ivory being traded may not have come from new elephants, but from old stockpiles, the Los Angeles Times added, noting that the poaching industry appears to be “alive and well.”
“There’s been a staggering rate of elephant loss every year,” Cerling told the Times, adding that some elephant populations are declining significantly. Central African forest elephants, he noted, have experienced a reported 62% population reduction between 2002 and 2014, and the savanna elephant population at Tanzania’s Selous Wildlife Reserve has fallen by about two-thirds.
Findings shows that poaching, not stockpile theft, top threat
While carbon-14 testing has been around for decades, scientists had never previous applied the technique to the ivory trade, according to Smithsonian Magazine. That’s because the approach is rather expensive and the tests can only be conducted at a handful of labs around the world.
Cerling’s team collected and dated 231 ivory specimens that had been collected from seizures in Asia and Africa between 2002 and 2014. They discovered that while nine-tenths of their samples were less than three years old, one came from an elephant killed 19 years before being seized and another had come from a creature that had been slain just months before its ivory was found.
The findings come on the heels of a 2015 study in which scientists analyzed DNA of ivory found during 28 large-scale seizures from 1996 to 2004, and matched it to 1,350 samples gathered from dung samples at 71 locations in 29 different countries, the Times noted. That allowed scientists to map ivory sources and track poaching patterns. However, some suggested that the specimens had not come from newly-killed animals, but from government stockpiles of older ivory.
“Some people were saying, well, we don’t need to worry so much because there’s big stockpiles of ivory, so we’re getting legacy ivory into the market… and other people were saying, no, no, no, these are all recent deaths,” Cerling told the newspaper. Thanks to his team’s work, however, he can now definitively say that “the ivory that’s being seized by customs is [from] very recently killed elephants. So indeed, the crisis is severe if we’re going to preserve this species.”
While that isn’t good news by any stretch of the imagination, the Utah professor did say that the study confirms that older ivory is not finding its way out of government stockpiles, as many had been fearing. As he explained to the Times, “that’s a very positive finding, that we’re not finding government officials selling old ivory or allowing that to happen.” Furthermore, he said, it shows that poaching remains an ongoing threat to elephants that needs to be dealt with.
Image credit: Thinkstock
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