Most illegal ivory is less than three years old

African elephant Kenya

African elephants are facing stark declines due to poaching.

Courtesy of Thure Cerling/Univ. of Utah

Around 90 percent of ivory seized by law enforcement comes from African elephants that died less than three years before seizure, a study of ivory samples finds. The results confirm what many conservationists have suspected: Long-term stockpiles don’t contribute much ivory to illegal trade, and poached ivory quickly ends up in illegal markets.

Thure Cerling of the University of Utah and colleagues analyzed 231 ivory pieces seized in 14 raids in Asia and Africa from 2002 to 2014 (including a 2002 raid in Singapore, shown). Radiocarbon dating of tusks pinpointed elephants’ time of death.

Just one tested specimen came from an elephant that died more than six years earlier, the team reports online November 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In geographic trends, ivory from East Africa appeared on the market faster than ivory from a forested area of Central Africa.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

More Stories from Science News on Animals