Lancaster University research helping to prevent the illegal ivory trade
Gayle Rouncivell, Lancaster Guardian
September 15, 2023
The research was carried out by Dr Rebecca Shepherd, formerly of Lancaster
Medical School and now at Bristol School of Anatomy, and Dr Jemma Kerns of
Lancaster Medical School at Lancaster University.
Dr Shepherd said: “By making it easier to tell the difference between
elephant and mammoth ivory, we can prevent illegal ivory from being traded
under the guise of legal ivory.
“In turn, this can deter those willing to sell ivory from animals
unlawfully poached, and make trading elephant ivory less desirable.”
Most countries worldwide have implemented bans on the trade of elephant
ivory, though these often have loopholes for antique ivory and items of
The UK has one of the toughest bans on elephant ivory sales in the world
with trade in elephant teeth and tusks made illegal, punishable by fines of
up to £250,000 or up to five years in prison.
But it is not illegal to sell ivory from animals that are already extinct,
such as the Woolly Mammoth, with a lucrative industry built around traders
who visit the Siberian plains in summer to retrieve ivory from thawing
It is possible to tell the difference between elephant and mammoth ivory in
its natural state, but once samples have become worked or carved this
becomes much harder.
The gold standard methods of identification recommended by The United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for assessing the legality of ivory
predominantly focus on DNA and mtDNA analysis and isotope analysis –
methods that are expensive, destructive and time-consuming.
Dr Shepherd said: “Our research uses a non-destructive, laser-based
technique to identify biochemical differences in the tusks from elephants
The technique, known as Raman spectroscopy, has been widely used in the
field of bone biology. The technology is widely available, and already used
at customs centres worldwide in the identification of powders and chemicals.
Raman spectroscopy works by shining a high energy light at a sample:
The molecular bonds in the sample temporarily absorbs the energy from the
light, and then releases it.
The amount of energy released by the bonds is either slightly more or
slightly less than the original energy.
Different types of molecular bonds have a different ‘fingerprint’ of energy
that is released.
“It is these differences that allows us to use Raman spectroscopy to
differentiate between materials. Although mammoths and elephants are from
the same family tree, there will be small differences in the biochemistry
of their tusks.”
The research team have been awarded an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Award to
work with the Worldwide Wildlife Fund Hong Kong to expand the Lancaster
University database of ivory samples and create software that can use Raman
spectroscopy data from ivory of unknown origin and suggest from which
species it has been taken.
On completion of this project, researchers plan to release the software
created for free use worldwide.