Arresting Evidence

By Natasha Loder

illustration: © Christopher Zacharow/

Inside a glitzy store in one of China’s port cities is a room that might shock you. Low lights, shiny glass, and mirrored cabinets: the room is a temple to ivory. It’s all available at a price, from tiny figurines to massive high-end carvings and even entire carved elephant tusks. A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) (1) in the U.K. says it’s a similar story all over China. Trade in ivory goods is flourishing, from key holders and chopsticks to pendants, bead earrings, and hankos. Given enough money, it is even possible to buy an ivory mobile phone. It all begs a simple but unsettling question: where does all this ivory come from 17 years after the international trade was halted?

Historically, Africa once had millions of elephants, maybe as many as 10 million. But from the 1970s, an orgy of elephant poaching ensued in which tens of thousands of animals were killed every year. By 1979, there were 1.3 million African elephants left; the decline continued throughout the 1980s until scientists warned that the elephant would go extinct. Some say that by 1989, almost half of Africa’s elephants had been slaughtered in the previous eight years. The carnage led to a successful consumer campaign against ivory, and in 1989, a complete ban on the international trade in ivory through CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It was an exciting time for those trying to save the elephant, as they watched the European and American markets dry up.

Fingerprinting a Bowl of Shark Fin Soup. A single pound of dried shark fin can retail for US$300-400. Most fins end up in shark-fin soup or traditional medicines. It’s a growing, multibillion-dollar industry; by some estimates, 100 million sharks are killed annually for their fins. Read More >>

But all that has changed. Increased wealth in Asia—particularly in China, where markets were never closed down—is driving the price of ivory to a record US$850 per kilogram, up from US$200 per kilogram in 2004. Poaching is rampant, and new evidence shows that the illegal trade is booming again, even in the U.S.

Although overlarge elephant populations in a few places such as Botswana have attracted media attention, the real story makes for much grimmer reading. Across most of Africa, poaching is back to such an extent that it may be worse than it was before the ban. The 12 months prior to August 2006 were a record year for ivory seizures. (1) The trade is now likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars and represents tens of thousands of elephants each year.

But that’s small change. The international trade in endangered species is the third-largest contraband business in the world, after illegal drugs and weapons. Until recently, however, finding out where wildlife had been taken and how it had been smuggled was more down to luck than hard science. But now a new generation of forensic technologies has altered the playing field. Investigators can identify
animals and plants from only slivers of tissue and can even figure out in which countries and, in some cases, in which park wildlife has been caught.

Such technologies are unleashing the kind of information that law enforcement officials have been craving for decades. But there’s more to the story than catching the bad guys. State-of-the-art forensic technology is also forcing us to face the reality that some of our most applauded trade bans and moratoriums aren’t working.

It is June 2002, and in Malawi African authorities have discovered 6.5 tons of contraband elephant ivory inside a 6-meter-long shipping container. The shipment, destined for the Far East, includes 532 whole tusks as well as 42,120 hankos believed to have been carved in Malawi. It remains the largest ivory seizure since the 1989 CITES trade ban. Researchers believe that between 3,000 and 6,500 elephants needed to be slaughtered for the ivory in that shipment alone. (2) But where did all these animals come from?

It turns out that several thousand were killed in or around Zambia. In fact, much of the ivory came from a single park, Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. This was a huge surprise. Initially, investigators suspected that the elephants had been killed all over Africa. The Zambian government had claimed that only 135 elephants were illegally killed in the country during the previous ten years.

Not even close. Clues to where the animals had been killed lay in a pile of dung—actually, many piles of elephant dung from all over Africa. Inside the dung is elephant DNA. By extracting the DNA, biologist Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington, Seattle, and his international team of researchers systematically created a gene reference map of African elephants.

It’s taken five years to create, but Wasser’s journey began in 1979 while he was working with baboons in southeastern Tanzania. He was measuring stress levels in baboons by looking at levels of hormones in their feces. It was a difficult time—the peak of African elephant carnage. “We kept running into poachers and elephant carcasses. I thought, boy, I should apply these methods to the ivory trade. It dawned on me that if I could get DNA from feces I could create a gene reference map.”

Simply put, the idea was that because an elephant in Kenya has slightly different DNA from one in South Africa or Chad, a complete database of elephant DNA could be used to match the DNA found in seized ivory. Thus it would be possible to figure out where the ivory came from and in which countries elephants were being killed.

Most of his samples came from dung, and some came from skin biopsies sent to him by elephant workers all over Africa. He still remembers the first shipment he received—a 500-pound, leaking box of elephant dung delivered by a baffled UPS delivery man. The database still contains a few gaps but is otherwise up and running. His team is working on more ivory seizures, including one in Cameroon—with talk of more to come.

Wasser is already creating waves, but he has only just started, and more uncomfortable revelations are to come. His research team has found surprising results on almost every seizure. “It is quite clear that this will be an enormous breakthrough in policing this trade,” Wasser says. The problem is that many countries cannot afford to pay for the work. So he is trying to set up an endowment in order to offer the elephant-tracing service free of charge. “It would be a shame if money were a barrier,” he says. A seizure of about six tons costs from US$50,000 to US$100,000 to analyze.

Although traceable ivory may not directly stop the illegal killing of elephants, it does identify poaching hotspots, expose smuggling routes, and force governments to face harsh truths about the real status of elephant populations in their country.

Of course, the truth is only half the battle. After the Malawi seizure, the Zambian government sacked its director of wildlife and imposed significantly higher sentences for convicted ivory traffickers. But despite all the evidence, no significant prosecutions have been made to date, and after five years the case is foundering. Subsequent investigations by the EIA revealed that the Malawi seizure was only one of 19 shipments smuggled by an ivory syndicate with links in Africa, Singapore, China, and Japan.

Corruption is rife. Wasser says that in many places, the people who report elephant numbers are also profiting heavily from the illegal ivory trade. The official IUCN elephant figures simply do not show the losses of elephants that the seizures reveal. Significantly more elephant carcasses are reported in countries with lower corruption, he adds.

What is becoming clear is that exposing the illegal trade is not enough. Wasser roughly calculates that, almost 20 years after the ban, elephants are being lost at a rate of 7.8 percent a year. Prior to the ban the rate was 7 percent. However, this rate is an average across the continent and ignores the fact that of Africa’s 400,000 elephants, over a quarter are in Botswana, whose elephant population is booming thanks to great protection from the military. Removing Botswana from the calculation, Wasser says, the rate of loss could be as high as 11.8 percent.

Such levels of exploitation cannot be sustained—something has to give. Yet with the price of ivory at US$850 a kilogram, there is no respite in sight. More seizures may merely drive up the price of ivory further and increase incentives to poach.

A major problem with the CITES ban is that it is an international agreement with weak national support—even in Western countries. Once ivory has arrived in a country, it is largely home free. In China, legal loopholes allow traders to register ivory they had “forgotten” to register at the time of the 1989 CITES ban. This effectively allows smuggled ivory to be legalized or laundered—no wonder half of all seized shipments of ivory are headed for China. And China is the source of the ivory now arriving on markets in San Francisco and New York.

Perhaps the time has come to reassess the trade ban. It isn’t working. Its initial success has not lasted. Now it gives organized criminal networks that smuggle drugs and arms something else to sell. Compared with other contraband, ivory is low-risk and high-profit. It’s good business.

Although conservationists may be comfortable with wildlife trade bans, economists worry that they create perverse incentives. Only a handful of countries have elephant ecotourism, and many others have no hope of doing so in the near future. A trade ban therefore means it is no longer possible to profit from having elephants on a piece of land, which makes habitat conversion and poaching much more attractive. G. Cornelis van Kooten, an economist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Canada, points out that the North American bison was doomed because the land it lived on became more valuable in cattle production than in producing bison.

In a forthcoming modeling paper, van Kooten argues that the elephant is likely to remain threatened by extinction unless a stronger link is made between live elephants and the well-being of residents in the countries they inhabit. (3) His model, which uses optimistic IUCN data, shows that the trade ban is unlikely to work. Nor will an increase in seizures—even to 50 percent—help matters.

On the other hand, a trade-free-for-all would unquestionably drive the elephant to extinction. That leaves conservationists, like those fighting the war on drugs, in a similar untenable predicament.

So could highly regulated trade work? Perhaps the only way to undermine illegal trade is to provide a legal supply—a supply that everyone trusts and whose parameters all countries can agree upon. The new generation of forensic technologies could make this a reality.

What if we established a commercial third-party verification scheme using the DNA-technology that Wasser has pioneered? It would allow countries with enough elephants to profit sustainably—and would provide an incentive for increasing elephant populations in countries with too few elephants. It can work only if most consumers can be educated to discriminate and to buy only from the legal supply.

But Wasser firmly disagrees, saying the key is greater public awareness of the plight of elephants and improved law enforcement. Van Kooten isn’t confident that a legal trade would work, either. He observes that the elephant population in his model does not decline precipitously when—and only when—the land supporting it is worth more to residents as elephant habitat than as some other use, such as agriculture,

An alternative option favored by Wasser is conservation payments. People, NGOs, or even whole countries who don’t want elephant ivory traded at all would make payments, on the basis of independently verified elephant numbers, to countries with elephants. However, payments would need to be large enough, directed to locals, and free of corruption in order to provide an on-the-ground incentive for protecting elephants. A tall order.

This summer, CITES renewed the ivory trade ban for another nine years while allowing for a one-off sale of ivory from four countries. For some, the extension of the ban was cause for great celebration. Sadly, the depressing reality is that, given current trends, more of the same means that elephant populations will not be in better shape nine years from now.

Literature cited:

1. Made in China: How China’s illegal ivory trade is causing a 21st century African elephant disaster. Environmental Investigation Agency, June 4, 2007.

2. Wasser, S. et al. 2007. Using DNA to track the origin of the largest ivory seizure since the 1989 trade ban. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104:4228-4233.

3. Van Kooten, G.C. Protecting the African elephant: A dynamic bioeconomic model of the ivory trade. Biological Conservation. In press.

About the Author

Natasha Loder is a science and technology correspondent for The Economist news weekly based in London.

Photo: © Christopher Zacharow/