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Using isotope testing to prevent wildlife crime

Rapidly-growing demand for ivory leads to increased wildlife crime.


WWF puts the number of African elephants killed every year for ivory at 20,000, and that number is growing, leading to the elephant population experiencing unsustainable levels of poaching. Agroisolab is committed to using SIRA to prevent wildlife crime.


Because of the high restrictions and illegality with obtaining, selling and importing ivory, a great majority must be smuggled into a country. When ivory is found in these situations, it is very difficult to determine the point of origin, and therefore, which regions are affected. This is where SIRA comes into play.


Agroisolab works alongside WWF in using SIRA as a verified tool to help determine the source of ivory, and new research has recently found a method to locate the source even without a declared origin – an important step in locating and stopping ivory poaching in vulnerable areas. The speed in which an area can be targeted as high-risk is refined through this method, reducing potential losses

How SIRA is used to determine the source of ivory

Stable isotope analysis measures carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur isotopes. These elements occur as two or more isotopic forms, and the ratios of these forms is the basis of SIRA authentication. At our accredited SIRA lab in Jülich, Germany, the ivory sample is prepared and tested in accordance with laboratory standards.


As with other isotope origin tests, stable isotopes are location-specific, and when compared against established reference databases and samples, can be used to find out where the sample of ivory came from.

d34S isoscape for Africa constructed with ordinary

How are samples taken?

Image: d34S elephant ivory isoscape for Africa constructed with ordinary Kriging based on mean values per site. Ziegler, S., Merker, S., Streit, B., Boner, M., Jacob, D.E. Towards understanding isotope variability in elephant ivory to establish isotopic profiling and source-area determination. Biological Conservation 197 (2016) 154–163

In the case of whole elephant tusks, a sample is taken from the end of the tusk that is the most recently formed in order to acquire a sample that presents the most accurate representation of isotopic signatures.


Samples are measured against the reference database (consisting of over 300 reference sites in Africa and Asia, with over 700 reference samples to test against) to find the area the elephant has roamed and where it was most likely to have been killed, and in doing so, highlight areas that are in need of more protection.

Further information

Confirmation as to the age of the ivory is also sometimes necessary in cases of worked ivory, due to the legal issues surrounding pre-ban pieces. If you would like to discuss any aspect of ivory testing, please contact us for further information.

The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, University of Regensburg, Goethe-Institut Hamburg, WWF, BFN (Germany) and Agroisolab teamed up to create an online tool for estimating the origin of ivory using stable isotope ratios.  

Ivory ID

Find out more here