Thai researchers create device to help identify smuggled ivory

1An innovative portable device created by Thai scientists will help Customs and law enforcement officials pinpoint smuggled ivory in under 10 minutes by identifying whether it is of Asian or African origins through its minerals content, government officials said last week.

The forensic device called “Tusk” is a portable X-ray fluorescent Spectrometer that scans ivory for 10 different minerals. Korakot Nganvongpanit, who helped invent the device as head of Chiang Mai University’s Department of Veterinary Biosciences and Veterinary Public Health, said Tusk has a 93 percent accuracy rate. The Chiang Mai university scientists developed the device in collaboration with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

Before the invention of Tusk, ivory samples would have to be ground down and their DNA tested to determine whether it was of African or Asian origins. Consequently, ivory needed to be seized and some of it destroyed during the investigation and verification process.

National Geographic said Tusk would make it easier to crack down on illegal ivory smuggling and sales. Sales of African ivory are illegal in Thailand and virtually all African ivory found in the Kingdom are the products of poaching and smuggling. Thailand is a transshipment point for smuggled African ivory and the Kingdom has been working hard in recent years to end the movement of this contraband through its borders.

Thailand’s National Ivory Action Plan has been reviewed by the secretariat of CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. African elephants have been declared protected animals under Thai law. Thailand also passed the Ivory Trade Act 2015 to control the trade of ivory and ivory products and to prevent African ivory entering the Kingdom.

Also more than $1.1 million worth of elephant tusks and pangolins were seized by Customs officials last week at Koh Samui airport. The shipment of 281 tusks and 12 bags of pangolin scales had originated in Nigeria and was destined for Laos.

“We closely checked the air cargo after getting a tip-off that illegal ivory traders would be transporting illicit items via airports,” said Kulis Sombatsiri, director general of the Customs Department.

Officials said they would send the seized ivory and scales for DNA testing to bolster their case that it is of African origins and therefore illegal. But that process may change soon when the new Tusk devices begin being distributed to Customs and other law enforcement officials. Korakot said that would happen in the near future, but there was no fixed date.

A 2014 report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife protection civil society group, found a sharp rise in ivory items for sale in Thailand between January 2013 and July 2014. The amount sold was much more than the estimated legal supply, indicating that most of the ivory for sale was illegal and probably from African elephants. About 30,000 African elephants are poached and slaughtered each year for their ivory. Most of the illicit ivory ends up being sold in other Asian countries.