For over four years, the SmartWater Foundation has been funding research in partnership with UNESCO and the international law enforcement communities in an attempt to suppress the illegal trafficking of both elephant tusks and rhino horn that are routinely poached from Africa.

Based on statistics released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), there were at least 20,000 elephants killed worldwide by poachers in 2013 for their ivory tusks. The number of elephants killed was slightly down from the 22,000 elephants killed in 2012 and the 25,000 poached in 2011.

At the end of 2013, there were an estimated 500,000 African elephants living in the world. 95 percent of the elephant population has been killed during the last 100 years.

The ivory is collected from elephants in Africa and sold in markets in Asia. According to CITES, there are 8 countries that are heavily involved in either buying, selling or providing illicit ivory.

The aim of the research was to develop a forensic process that will enable law enforcement agencies to track and trace recovered items back to their source, either removed from a slaughtered animal or stolen from an official storage facility.

Some elephants tusks are harvested and kept in official storage facilities.
Structure of elephant tusk. Credit: Mark Chervenka

Scope of Testing:

Background levels of potential interferents:

Given the chemical signature of SmartWater®, it was essential to first determine the elemental composition of tusks so that any commonly present elements could be identified. These were taken into consideration when formulating SmartWater forensic solutions specifically for ivory marking, so that potential interferences to the analysis are avoided.

Samples of raw ivory, kindly donated by international law enforcement agencies, were analyzed for elemental content, utilizing powerful analytical technology that enables highly sensitive elemental and isotopic analysis to be performed directly on solid samples.  Sampling was undertaken directly from outer surfaces of the tusks and from the inner surface of freshly sawn cross-sections. The results of this testing were as predicted: multiple sampling of outer surfaces demonstrated both within and between tusk variation with the latter being much more pronounced. Elements observed to be common to all the tusks that were analyzed were not included in SmartWater formulations that were subsequently used.

Penetration testing – outer tusk surface:

Outer surfaces of tusks were marked with different formulations of SmartWater that varied in the concentration of polymer included and type of fluorescent marker used. Application methods used were both painting and directly spraying onto the outer surfaces. Once dried, all formulations provided permanent marking of the outer surface of the tusk.

Cross-sections were cut to assess the degree of penetration into the body of the tusk. This indicated that penetration was not significant: only the outer surfaces were marked, regardless of the formulation or method of application deployed.

Elephant tusk marked with SmartWater under UV black light.
Foundation scientists conducted systematic tests on internal marking.
Penetration testing – inner tusk surface

Inner surfaces of tusks were marked with a standard formulation of SmartWater.  This was undertaken on tusk samples that had a distinct pulp cavity. These were clamped in an upright position, then the pulp cavity was filled with SmartWater solution and left for a period of a week. SmartWater solution was then emptied out of the cavity, the tusk allowed to dry and cross-sections were cut sequentially along the length of tusk. Foul-smelling material, assumed to be the remains of rotting pulp soft tissue was found at the apex of the pulp cavity.

The cross-sections were assessed by systematically analyzing from the inner surface of the pulp cavity out into the body of the ivory in 1 mm increments.

The results are restricted for the benefit of law enforcement agencies and those charged with protecting endangered species only. Please use the Inquiry form to request further information.