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Synthetic ivory fails to stop illegal trade

Nature volume 507, page 40 (06 March 2014) | Download Citation

Synthetic ivory can now be crafted to the same diagnostic standards as genuine ivory (see M. E. Sims et al. Ethnobiol. Lett. 2, 40–44; 2011), and its price in China is only about 14% of that of real ivory. First manufactured in 1865 to save elephants' tusks from being turned into billiard balls (US patent 50359), synthetic ivory is not proving to be the panacea hoped for by conservationists and Chinese enforcement agencies.

Because synthetic and authentic ivory are so similar, unscrupulous traders caught smuggling illegal ivory can claim that it is synthetic; they can also pass off synthetic ivory as genuine when they sell it. The situation may be aggravated by legitimate traders, because they are entitled to compensation if destructive sampling is carried out to conclusively distinguish real from synthetic ivory (H. G. M. Edwards and D. W. Farwell Spectrochim. Acta A 51, 2073–2081; 1995).

One of us (Z.-M. Z.), as an enforcement officer for the Yunnan Public Security Bureau for Forests in China, has investigated 57 cases of suspected illegal ivory trading since 2011. Of these, 27 attempted to disguise samples of genuine ivory by mixing them with fake ivory, and only 513 of 1,714 items actually proved to be synthetic. These litigants all voluntarily submitted their products to destructive sampling, saying that they were deceived by their own suppliers.

The illegal ivory trade does not seem to be diminishing: in November 2013 alone, for example, customs agents in Xiamen, China, seized around 12,000 kilograms of imported ivory, and three Chinese citizens were arrested for smuggling 1,800 kg of ivory from Tanzania.

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  1. Yunnan Public Security Bureau for Forests, Kunming, China.

    • Zhao-Min Zhou
  2. On behalf of 4 co-signatories (see Supplementary Information for full list).

    • Zhao-Min Zhou


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