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New forensics technique can reveal fingerprints of ivory poachers


According to a story that appeared in Scientific American, two new compounds can reveal criminals’ fingerprints on animal tusks and teeth up to 28 days after handling.

Leon Barron, a senior lecturer in forensic science at Kings College London, found that two powders, which have been commercially available for several years but previously untested on ivory, can reveal prints left on elephant tusks for up to four weeks, according to findings published in Science & Justice. The fingerprint techniques have also been tested and proven to work on rhino horn, tiger claws, hippopotamus and sperm whale teeth.

Barron helped prepare a field kit, manufactured by the Metropolitan Police Service, using the two chemicals, that costs less than US$150. The field kit is designed to assist countries that suffer from insufficient anti-poaching capacity. The small kit contains all the tools needed for a field investigator to examine ivory for fingerprints and obtain the prints as evidence. The researcher told Scientific American that he already received correspondence from government officials in Africa who wish to use the kit to prevent elephant poaching.

Despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, African elephants are still being poached in large numbers, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks. The new techniques, co-developed by Barron, can be used to help track down and bring to justice the intricate network of organized criminal gangs that engage in the illegal ivory trade and other high-value wildlife poaching activities.

Official estimates are that organized crime syndicates kill over 30,000 elephants a year, in order to sell or trade the ivory for weapons. In central Africa, 64 percent of elephants have been lost to poachers over the past decade. It is believed that if the killing continues uninterrupted, the animals will go extinct in some African countries within the next decade. Illegal ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewelry, with China being the biggest consumer market for such products.

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