Our Laser Technique Can Tell Apart Elephant And Mammoth Ivory – Here’s How It May Disrupt The Ivory Trade

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In recent years, the global trade in elephant ivory has faced significant restrictions in an effort to protect dwindling elephant populations. Many countries have stringent controls on the trade of elephant ivory. The sale of mammoth ivory, sourced primarily from long-extinct species, however, remains unregulated.

But it’s a significant challenge for customs and law enforcement agencies to distinguish between ivory from extinct mammoths and living elephants. This is a process that is both time-consuming and requires destroying the ivory.
Now our new study, published in PLOS ONE, presents a major breakthrough – using a well known laser technique to tell mammoth and elephant ivory apart.
Our results couldn’t come soon enough. The number of African elephants has dramatically declined from approximately 12 million a century ago to about 400,000 today.

Annually, over 20,000 elephants are poached for ivory, primarily in Africa. This decline not only disrupts ecological balance, but also diminishes biodiversity. Ultimately, it highlights the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect these species.

The hunt for mammoth ivory is also a problem. The new regulations are leading to a rise in the modern-day “mammoth hunter”. These are people who deliberately set out to excavate mammoth remains from the Siberian permafrost in the summer months.
Driven by the lucrative market for mammoth ivory, these hunters undertake expeditions in remote Arctic regions, where permafrost melting is accelerated by climate change. This has made previously inaccessible mammoth tusks more reachable.

This activity not only has commercial implications. It also raises significant ethical and environmental concerns. That’s because it disturbs preserved ecosystems and involves the extraction of resources that have great value to paleontological science.

Laser insights​

Our study from the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Lancaster University and the Natural History Museum, introduces a potential game-changer. We use a non-invasive laser technique known as Raman spectroscopy to identify the origin of a piece of ivory.....

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