A group of customs agents in Hong Kong surround a large shipment of elephant tusks being confiscated as part of a concerted effort to stop international trade in ivory
Business, Sustainability, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Researchers Provide New Tools to Fight Illegal Ivory Trade

A group of customs agents in Hong Kong surround a large shipment of elephant tusks being confiscated as part of a concerted effort to stop international trade in ivory
Customs officers seize ivory tusks, rhino horn and leopard skins, with a street value of around €4 million, at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in Hong Kong, China, 08 August 2013. Photo: International Fund for Animal Welfare | Flickr CC.

International efforts to shut down illegal ivory trade and to prevent the poaching of elephants or rhinos to create new products have failed. Ivory is still sold around the world and fetches high prices.

And thanks to the Internet, especially thanks to eBay, tracking down everyone who is buying or selling ivory is nearly impossible.

Determining what products are actually ivory, and which are illegal, takes time and effort, but there generally aren’t enough people working on the problem to keep up with traffic.

However, there is some cause for hope. Researchers at the University of Kent have developed a system, which scans Ebay listings and accurately determines if an item for sale is ivory or not. This search is possible despite most listings don’t use the term “ivory” to describe their illegal items.

This level of accuracy is about the same as a human investigator would provide, but the algorithm doesn’t yet utilize pictures. With further development the 93% success rate could be further increased. And to top it all off, the computer system is much faster than human investigators.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, most of those elephants are being killed in one of two places. The researches used DNA evidence taken from seized illegal ivory to make the determinations, and they learned a lot more about the illegal ivory trade as well.

This is good news for elephants and rhinos, and bad news for poachers. African elephants, of which there are less than 500,000, are being killed at a rate of about 50,000 per year. At this rate, that species is doomed.

Hopefully the international community can make use of this new information to not only put an end to ivory markets, but also prevent poachers from acquiring it in the first place.

Of course, convincing people that pointless decorations aren’t worth the life of endangered animals is the first step toward strangling the ivory market. Educating people about the complex social interactions between elephants is an important step towards increasing awareness of the problem. It’s also an important step toward protecting the world’s ecosystems.

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