Despite a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory taken from elephants killed after 1989, virtually all of the tusks being smuggled out of Africa are from animals killed less than three years ago, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals. This contradicts the assumption that illegal exports contain large amounts of ivory obtained before the ban was put in place, and indicates that poaching is still a major problem across the continent.
Researchers looked at 231 tusks seized in 14 major shipment busts between 2002 and 2014, in nine African countries. The time of death of each elephant was then calculated by looking at levels of an isotope called carbon-14, which entered the environment as a result of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s, and was taken up by the plants that the elephants later ingested.
As it turns out, over 90 percent of these tusks came from animals that had been alive less than three years before the shipments were apprehended, with only four belonging to elephants that had died more than five years before their ivory was seized.
In a statement, study co-author Kevin Uno explained that this finding “shows that ivory is moving through the system fast. Some of the elephants were killed just before their tusks were thrown in the shipping container.”
An elephant killed by poachers in Kenya 2012. Authorities arrived on the scene before the poachers had time to remove the tusks. David Daballen/Save the Elephants
By analyzing the DNA in these specimens, the researchers were also able to determine their geographical origin, and found that the lag time between poaching and shipping of ivory tends to be much shorter for East African elephants than those from West Africa. This, the authors say, is probably due to the fact that elephants on the East African savannah are much easier to kill and transport, since they are found in wide open spaces. Those in the heavily forested Tridom region in Cameroon, Gabon, and DRC, meanwhile, are much harder to access.
As a result, roughly 35 percent of ivory taken from East African elephants was seized within a year of the animals being killed, compared to just 7 percent of West African ivory.
Overall, the average lag time between poaching and seizure increased from less than a year in 2011 to three years in 2014, which the researchers say is down to the fact that elephants are becoming increasingly scarce across Africa, meaning it now takes smugglers longer to gather enough ivory for a shipment.