Fingerprint breakthrough could help stop the ivory trade, says Stuart Winter


Stuart Winter, The Express

Date Published

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Elephant blood has been staining the hands of those bewitched by the allure of ill-gotten ivory since Classical times. Ancient civilisations exterminated these mighty creatures across the arid steppes of North Africa and the Middle East enlisting them as war weapons or turning their pillaged tusks into treasure.

Ivory was prized for the way it could be crafted into religious icons and ornaments or billiard balls and piano keys and poachers, traffickers and backstreet artisans continue to enrich themselves at a heavy cost for the largest of all land mammals.

Every two hours an elephant is mutilated so its tusks can be shipped along smuggling routes to be worked into Far East status symbols. Ivory is made from nothing more than enamel-coated dentine, the same substance as teeth, yet it has one property that has long confounded law enforcers: it does not hold fingerprints.

Until now…

Metropolitan Police forensic imaging expert Mark Moseley was recently honoured by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for developing a kit that can secure vital fingerprint evidence.

It was after being challenged by his daughters to help save vanishing elephants that Mark threw himself into finding ways of obtaining fingerprints from tusk seizures. 

Working with Dr Leon Barron from King’s College London, he spent every spare second testing ivory under a welter of conditions. 

He looked at evaluating fingerprint powders in order to obtain ridge details left behind when ivory is handled by human hands and ultimately used smaller scale powder to obtain ridge details on semi-porous biological materials such as ivory for up to 28 days after handling. 

That breakthrough has now been honed into an easily deployed forensic kit that can gather evidence against the criminals organising poaching activities as well as the middlemen who weigh, pack or sell ivory.  

IFAW has been instrumental in donating the fingerprint kits to 18 countries with remarkable success. In Kenya, it has led to 15 arrests and the seizure of 11 tusks and worked ivory.

Last month it was deployed in an investigation that saw the seizure of ivory worth £2million in Singapore.

Mark told me last week: “By November we hope for over 200 forensic kits to be in circulation. Saving these wonderful creatures and their environments is crucial not just for us but also for the next generation. Applying new techniques can have a major impact in helping to identify those committing environmental and wildlife crimes.”

IFAW is inviting nominations for this year’s Animal Action Awards, which are supported by Express Newspapers.

Philip Mansbridge, UK director of IFAW, says: “We’d love to hear from Express readers who know of a deserving person or animal that deserves special recognition.”