BLOG | Can wildlife forensics give a voice to the non-human victims?

Francis Massé reflects on a recent ivory identification workshop

In June, Francis Massé received a competency certificate in morphological identification of ivory after participating in a two-day Ivory Identification workshop that was part of the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. In this blog, Francis reflects on the workshop in the context of the illegal wildlife trade and law enforcement.

Run by forensic scientists from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Forensic Lab, the workshop was attended by a variety of forensic and law enforcement personnel, among many others who wanted some training on ivory identification and a certificate of competency.

My certificate! Need to know what type of ivory that piece or carving is? Or if it is even ivory at all? You know who to call.

Morphological identification simply means identification based on the form, structure, and physical features of an animal/plant object or species. In the case of ivory, this means looking at the specific physical and structural characteristics of a suspected piece of ivory, such as a tusk or tooth-like object, or a piece of worked material like a carving, to determine if it is indeed ivory, and it if is ivory, to determine what species it comes from. This last part is particularly important because while it is often elephant tusks and carvings of tusks that come to mind when thinking of ivory, there are a variety of sources of ivory, both extant and extinct. For example, ivory can be from proboscidean or non-proboscidean origins. Proboscidean refers to ivory of the African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) or their extinct biological relatives like mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), and mastodons (Elephas americanum), for example. Non-proboscidean ivory refers to ivory of any other origin. While some are more common than others, different sources of ivory include land animals like the warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), forest hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) and hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious), pygmy hippo (Hexaprotodon liberiensis) and marine species like walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) tusk and teeth, narwhal (Monodon monoceros) tusk, and the teeth of sperm whale (Phystere macrocephalus) and orcas (Orcinus orca).

There are also a host of ivory substitutes that are forgeries or fakes made from bone, tagua nuts, helmeted hornbill casques, or synthetic material to resemble any of the real sources of ivory above and fool buyers into paying premium prices, or pass them by customs or enforcement officials. Similarly, sellers will also try to pass off a warthog tooth or mammoth ivory as elephant ivory, or a tooth of one species as that of a more valuable one. And again, this matters not just for concerns of forgery and fraud, but because different types of ivory are regulated differently. For example, while the international trade in extant ivory, or ivory from living elephant species, is regulated by CITES, extinct ivory, or ivory from extinct species like the mammoth and mastodon is not, although this might soon change. Different types of extant ivory are classified and thus regulated differently. And, some countries have their own national restrictions with other regulations, such as the UK’s new Ivory Bill. Some of these may include certain bans on extinct ivory.

Me with a narwhal tusk! The workshop entailed examining and working with hundreds of raw and worked ivory objects (and ivory substitutes) to have practical, hands on experience identifying the key morphological traits needed to come to a conclusion. All of the sample pieces, like this tusk, came from the USFWS Wildlife Repository, a giant warehouse that stores all of the seized wildlife and wildlife products by US enforcement officials.

I had a really great time and learned a lot about ivory, morphological identification and the developments of wildlife forensic science, a truly fascinating field. Morphological analysis of wildlife and wildlife products like ivory is part of a growing set of tools, knowledge, and techniques that form the expanding field of wildlife forensic science and related practices. This is why I attended the workshop and SWFS conference in the days that followed it. As part of my research on conservation law enforcement and efforts to address wildlife trafficking, wildlife forensics is an increasingly important part of the enforcement chain and suite of practices and knowledge used by law enforcement that I examine. The primary use of wildlife forensics is to identify the species of a whole animal or plant, or part of it. Forensic techniques are not limited to ivory or to morphological analysis. Morphological analysis is done to identify species of trees, feathers, birds, and a variety of other plants and animals and their parts. But, morphological analysis is not always appropriate nor is it always conclusive. As such, there are other forensic techniques such as DNA forensic analysis, among others.

Coming back to ivory, when customs or law enforcement seize suspected ivory, it is necessary to know 1. If it is indeed ivory, and 2. What type of ivory it is, or what species it comes from and to provide evidence to answer each of these questions. This is necessary because of the different laws and regulations around the trade in different types of ivory and of different species more generally. Between 2013 and 2017, items containing ivory were the fourth most seized and confiscated CITES listed products by the UK Border Force. The number of items containing ivory by UK Border force increased substantially in 2014. Internationally, 24,636 elephant products alone were seized by 98 countries between 1989 and 2016, with seizures in 2014-2017 representing the largest quantity of elephant ivory since 1989. In order to enforce CITES regulations, related to ivory or otherwise, customs and other enforcement officials need the science and tools to be able to identify what exactly a raw or worked specimen is. This is precisely why different enforcement officials, including those related to enforcing the UK’s new Ivory Bill also participated in the workshop.

Wildlife forensics, however, is not only limited to ivory but can help answer a variety of questions related to the identification of many plant and animal species and their parts. Other questions the wildlife forensics could answer, for example, are cause of death of an animal, geographical origin of a specimen, and so forth. While I focus on international wildlife trafficking, wildlife forensics also deals with more localized issues as well, such as illegal deer hunting or animal poisoning.

Reference samples of bone and synthetic material used as ivory substitutes. Organic material like bone and ivory exhibits different characteristics than synthetic material under certain conditions, a starting point to know whether you might be dealing with ivory or a synthetic substitute.

From laboratories to frontline customs and law enforcement to expert testimony in the court room, wildlife forensics is part of an ever-growing array of spaces, actors, and institutions that biodiversity conservation increasingly intersects with. I’m continuing research on the topic, and especially how wildlife forensics is developing and being used in source countries like Gabon, Tanzania, and Vietnam, for example, where organizations like TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and USAID fund and support the development of wildlife forensics lab and related capacity building.

Forensic science is often quoted as being able to bring justice to victims of crime because it gives a voice to the victims rendered voiceless by telling their story of what happened. The question pertaining to wildlife forensics then, is: Can wildlife forensics give a voice to the non-human victims? How might this alter efforts to address wildlife trafficking and environmental crime more broadly, especially as wildlife forensic science itself advances, expands and increases in recognition and application?