As the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Qatar comes to an end this week, experts are getting ready for a Nature Live discussion at the Natural History Museum tomorrow evening.
Representatives from the Museum, UK government, TRAFFIC (wildlife trade monitoring network) and Oxford Brookes University are taking part in Crossing Borders: The Illegal Trade in Endangered Species at 19.00 in the new Darwin Centre Attenborough Studio.
They will also talk about the decision taken this Monday by CITES not to allow Tanzania and Zambia to sell their stockpiles of ivory. This keeps in place in those countries the international ban on the ivory trade, set up in 1989.
Ivory specimens brought into the UK, which are seized and confiscated by Customs officials, are sent to the Museum for identification. The Museum can help law enforcement agencies in their work through its staff expertise and its world-class scientific reference collections.
Museum mammal expert Richard Sabin, who is part of the Crossing Boarders event, identifies these and other specimens as part of his job. He explains his role. 'We provide valuable support and produce authoritative reports which may be submitted as evidence in court.'
After material arrives at the Museum, Sabin and his colleagues are asked to examine material and where possible, determine which species they are.
'With whole skins, skulls or complete bones,' says Sabin, 'it is possible to carry out the identifications with relative ease, using known morphology and established taxonomic criteria.
'However, when dealing with isolated parts of animals, such as horn sections or carved teeth/tusks, the work becomes more difficult.'
There are different types of animal ivories, for example elephant, hippo, sperm whale and walrus. For these, Sabin carries out a visual examination using a variety of optical instruments. This allows him to see the developmental characteristics unique to each species.
'For example, elephant ivory has a distinctive pattern created by the formation of dentine as the tusks grow,' says Sabin. 'The dentine forms bands of light and dark material which resemble a machine-turned pattern. These bands are known as Schreger lines, and are only found in species from the elephant family.
In some cases, exceptionally rare species are seized and confiscated at UK borders. 'Those specimens which are of greatest value to science can be requested and are donated to the Museum for research purposes,' says Sabin. 'Other material examined is returned to the law enforcement agencies pending judgement.'
Wild African elephants, Loxodonta africana, live south of the Sahara. A fully grown savannah elephant can weigh 4-7 tonnes and measure 2.5-4m high at the shoulder.
The main reason they are hunted illegally is for their ivory tusks, which are in fact hugely expanded incisor teeth. Both sexes possess tusks, those of the female being slightly smaller, whereas in the Asian species the females generally lack tusks.
Currently there is a surge in ivory trading. More than 14,000 products made from the tusks and other body parts of elephants were seized in 2009. It is estimated that between 8% and 10% of Africa’s elephants are now being killed each year to meet the demand, mostly from the Far East.
The African elephant is classed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. And the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, is classed as Endangered.
Richard Sabin appeared on last week's BBC Museum of Life television programme. In the 6-part series viewers saw some of the work that he does with the mammal collection and Richard is online answering questions for one week after the show. The next show is this Thursday at 19.00.
There are a small number of tickets still available for the Crossing Borders Nature Live event at 19.00 tomorrow. Tickets cost £6 and can be booked by telephoning +44 (0)20 7942 5000.