Breaking new ground in the fight against ivory poaching

Agroisolab UK has today announced a new methodology that has exciting implications for the battle against illegal ivory poaching.

A new paper published presents data in the form of stable isotope ratio analysis (SIRA) to determine the source of seized ivory that has no known origin. Previously, an origin had to be declared for ivory in order to work out where it came from, but this new methodology allows for a piece of ivory to be traced back to around 400km, the typical area of range for a wild elephant, even without any source declaration. This is an important step forward in wildlife forensics – knowing where a piece of ivory came from can help determine areas that require more protection than others and assess population losses. The speed in which an area can be targeted as high-risk is refined through this method, reducing potential losses.

Stefan Ziegler, the paper’s lead author, in conjunction with the University of Frankfurt, presents data from testing 507 samples of ivory from various sources, including collections and seizures, and of various ages, the oldest sample being from 1795.

Agroisolab UK, based in North Yorkshire, is in partnership with Agroisolab of Jülich, Germany, and together have produced a large amount of databases, including various foods and timber. Agroisolab has also done work with the World Wildlife Fund in regards to isotope testing timber to determine the origin and help in the fight against illegal logging, and has been involved in SIRA authentication since 2006. The first work with Stefan Ziegler, on the origin of elephant ivory using isotopes, was outlined in 2012.

Roger Young, CEO of Agroisolab UK, said of the new methodology: “We feel that this report will provide a real benefit to conservation. Utilising SIRA in this way proves that the possibilities of this kind of technology are growing all the time.”

“Wildlife crime has such wide-reaching effects, and is such an ever-evolving problem, that it is imperative we have the most up-to-date methods in order to combat it. With isotope testing, we have a powerful and effective weapon that can be applied to a number of situations in which origin needs to be determined. The technology has come a long way since 2006, and we are confident that it can be pushed even further to solve more problems in the future.”

SIRA origin testing has been used for many years in areas such as archaeology and forensics. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur are elements found in many components of nature – including food, timber and ivory. These elements occur as two or more isotopic forms, and the ratios of these forms is the basis of SIRA authentication. The ratios present in food and water are transferred to the animal when consumed, and can be compared and measured against existing reference databases of samples of known origin to verify the source of the tested sample.

The paper is available on Researchgate here.

Image: d34S elephant ivory isoscape for Africa constructed with ordinary Kriging based on mean values per site. Credit Ziegler et al 2016.

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