Elephant poaching: Breakthrough in retrieving fingerprints from ivory

Scientists say they have tested and validated a new technique of lifting fingerprints from smuggled ivory, which was previously thought impossible due to the coarse and fibrous nature of the tusks. 

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File
A family of elephants walks after cooling themselves in a pond during a census at the Amboseli National Park, 188 miles southeast of Kenya's capital Nairobi, Oct. 9, 2013.

Anti-poaching police may soon be able to identify wildlife poachers by retrieving fingerprints from confiscated elephant ivory, a new study indicates.

It is estimated that around 35,000 to 40,000 elephants are killed by poachers every year, as the illegal ivory trade spirals out of control in Africa. Previously, it had been considered impossible to obtain fingerprints from ivory because of the material's highly porous and ridged surface, making it more difficult for police officers to track down poachers. 

Now, for the first time ever, a team of researchers from King’s College London, University College London, and London's Metropolitan Police have come up with a new technique for retrieving fingerprints from ivory.

The progress has to do with the size of the particles of the fingerprint powder. Traditional powders have been ineffective at identifying poachers' prints. But in recent years, newer powder materials have emerged, composed of smaller particles, and smaller particles “adhere better to smaller amounts of fingermark residue left behind,” according to a statement from King’s College London.

“This is the first time that fingerprinting on ivory has been thoroughly investigated and a practical solution offered,” said Dr. Leon Barron, study author and a lecturer in forensic science at King’s College London.

“The only other study carried out over a decade ago simply showed that fingerprints were unstable and that the clarity of ridge detail was low, making it difficult to make reliable identifications.” 

The team found that the technique works best within seven days of a fingerprint being deposited, though some information can still be retrieved for up to 28 days. The researchers also found that the method also works for rhino ivory, hippo teeth, and sperm whale teeth.

The new technique could join other stepped-up efforts to curb the illegal ivory trade. Last summer, in pioneering research, scientists used DNA technology to better pinpoint elephant poaching hotspots in Africa.

By matching the DNA fingerprints of seized elephant ivory to DNA profiles from the dung of elephants living throughout the continent, scientist were able to establish the origin of illegal ivory to just two areas in Africa, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The data showed that tusks of forest elephants were most likely to come from the central African Tridom region, forest that includes parts of the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo. Tusks from savannah elephants focused on the border area between Tanzania and Mozambique.

Scientists hope that knowing the primary areas where elephants are poached could help fight ivory trafficking at its source.

Last month, conservationists welcomed a move by China to impose a temporary ban on ivory acquired as hunting trophies. Ivory acquired from big game hunting have long been sanctioned in China, but wildlife campaigners say, “it stimulates demand for fresh ivory and is used to conceal the illegal trade.”

China is the world's largest market for ivory and an effective restriction there would be a major step towards ending the poaching crisis that is rapidly pushing populations of African elephants, rhinos and other species to the brink of extinction.

Scientists hope that the new fingerprinting technique will allow police in wildlife poaching hotspots to identify them more easily. Gary Pugh, the director of forensic services at the Metropolitan Police said in a statement, “the equipment required to put this form of fingerprinting into practice is inexpensive and relatively easy to procure, making it a cost-effective forensic tool to combat wildlife crime.” 

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