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This New Map of Major Ivory Seizures Could Help Save Elephants


Despite scores of large-scale ivory seizures since 2000, only 18 have been fully investigated, a conservation group says.

It’s estimated there are 410,000 to 650,000 elephants roaming the Earth. It sounds like a lot, but between 30,000 and 50,000 die each year, poached for their ivory tusks at a rate of one every 15 minutes—fast enough to put extinction of the iconic species in sight.

With illegal trade in ivory a major threat to the species’ survival, conservation groups, wildlife officials, and governments are increasing international cooperation to stamp out the global ivory market through efforts that include improving wildlife ranger security, deploying antipoaching drones, and taking more accurate elephant counts.

Now the United Kingdom–based conservation group Environmental Investigation Agency has created a new tool to help agencies and the public better understand the global scale of the illegal ivory trade.

The newly released map pinpoints the location of every large-scale ivory seizure—those of more than 1,100 pounds of elephant tusks—that has taken place between 2000 and 2015. A reported 117 seizures have recovered an estimated 465,000 pounds of ivory in the 15-year stretch—equivalent to about 31,000 slaughtered elephants.

The findings are based on publically reported large-scale ivory seizures and ivory stockpile thefts, and represent only a portion of all illegally trafficked ivory.

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The orange circles, sized by weight of ivory seized, show all of the seizures recorded. The black circles depict every theft reported from a government-owned ivory stockpile over the past 15 years, and the green circles depict where country officials have conducted forensic analysis on the seized ivory, taking DNA samples to identify the region where the elephant tusks originated.

Shruti Suresh, EIA’s senior wildlife campaign officer, said the map shows the scope of the mass killing of elephants and highlights countries that might need to beef up security around seized ivory stockpiles as well as strengthen efforts to fully investigate where the seized ivory is coming from.

Despite dozens of major ivory seizures reported over the past 15 years, according to EIA, only 18 have been given forensic analysis, such as using DNA to identify where in Africa or Asia the poaching took place.

“There needs to be more done at these sources where the ivory is being seized,” Suresh said. “The seizure is only part of the enforcement. DNA analysis could help countries determine where ivory has been seized from, identify the poaching hot spots—the origin of the ivory—and help in planning antipoaching operations, identifying trade routes, and enforcing cooperation between countries.”

Suresh called this “a huge missed opportunity,” noting that recent DNA analysis of only a handful of seized ivory samples revealed that Tanzania is a major source of tusks entering the illegal global trade.

But she remains hopeful that countries will take more in-depth looks at their ivory stocks, in part because the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species announced a plan at its 2013 meeting for all countries to submit seized ivory samples to accredited forensic labs for sampling.

“That means the countries don’t have to develop expensive labs themselves,” Suresh said.

With the new map, EIA hopes to keep the pressure on these countries to do more follow-up work on their ivory seizures.

“Right now, seizures are proclaimed as sort of a success—which it can be, but a seizure in itself is not an enforcement success,” Suresh said. “There needs to be an investigation into its origin, an arrest, and prosecution, which leads to a conviction and a meaningful sentencing.”

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