Thursday, 25 January 2018

Seized ivory probed for clues that could help save elephants

January 15, 2018 by Mary Esch

In this Jan. 8, 2018 photo, Wendy Hapgood, left, and John Steward, directors of the Wild Tomorrow Fund, measure an elephant tusk at a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation warehouse in Albany, N.Y. The tusk was part of a …more

Scientists are using information gleaned from both illegal ivory art and elephant dung to provide clues that could help save the lives of pachyderms that are being slaughtered for their tusks in Africa.

The wildlife detective work involves cutting up seized artifacts including bangle bracelets and statues of Chinese deities and subjecting them to carbon dating to determine when the elephants were killed. DNA from the ivory art is then compared to a DNA database derived from elephant dung to pinpoint where they lived.

What scientists learn may not put a particular poacher in jail, but will tell the story of where and when an elephant died on an African savannah so its tusk could be carved in Asia to make a goddess statue priced at $72,000 in a Manhattan antique shop.

"It's going to be really helpful not only for scientific purposes, but also to be able to tell people about the individual lives of elephants that ended up as artwork on our streets," said Wendy Hapgood, director of the Wild Tomorrow Fund, which supports African wildlife preserves, anti-poaching enforcement and efforts to shut down the ivory trade.

The group cut chips from 21 statues, bracelets and mounted tusks that were among $4.5 million in illegal ivory artifacts seized from a Manhattan antiques shop and dramatically destroyed in a rock crusher in Central Park last August. The chips will be analyzed by scientists at Columbia University and the University of Washington.

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