DNA Analysis Of Ivory Trinkets In Cambodia Reveals Something Very Unexpected

A pile of ivory tusks. Svetlana Foote/Shutterstock

Researchers DNA testing ivory trinkets bought from sellers in Cambodia have stumbled across something unexpected: mammoth tusk.

The initiative is part of a project funded by the British government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and headed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Dr Alex Ball. The hope is that by analyzing DNA samples extracted from ivory items, the scientists will be able to locate poaching hotspots – and by doing so, protect vulnerable elephant populations.


Cambodia’s position makes it an important stop on the ivory smuggling route from Africa to Asia. By breaking down dentine and calcium molecules in ivory passing through the country, scientists are able to determine where exactly the individual elephants whose tusks were used came from in the first place, Ball told BBC News. The majority of the samples – as you might expect – contain DNA of elephants from both Africa and Asia. However, several samples threw up something a little less expected. The DNA testing revealed mammoth ivory masquerading as elephant ivory.

"To our surprise, within a tropical country like Cambodia, we found mammoth samples within the ivory trinkets that are being sold," said Ball.

"So this has basically come from the Arctic tundra, dug out the ground. And the shop owners are calling it elephant ivory but we've found out it's actually mammoth."

Unlike elephants, mammoths are not covered by international agreements pertaining to the sale and trade of endangered species. That is because they are not endangered, technically-speaking. They are extinct and have been extinct for the last 10,000 years, although perhaps not for much longer. The result: A burgeoning trade in mammoth tusk that AFP describes as a “mammoth rush”.


Mammoth tusks (also called "ice ivory") are actually a relatively common find in Russia's Yakutia region, an area roughly five times the size of France that borders the Arctic Ocean. Its chilly temperatures and layers of permafrost provide a perfect incubator, with authorities estimating some 500,000 tonnes of mammoth tusk trapped (and preserved) in the ice. In 2017, the country exported 72 tonnes, with as much as 80 percent of it headed to China where it can sell for more than $1,000 per kilogram. Even palaeontologists have been getting in on the rush, with many institutions buying tusks at a much cheaper rate than they could without the trade.

Experts disagree on whether or not it is a good thing as far as mammoths' living ancestors, elephants, are concerned. On one hand, the trade may be filling a demand without threatening elephants, while leading to a plethora of new discoveries. On the other, it may be fueling demand for the real thing and harming the natural environment in the process.  

However, it can throw up another problem. Many smugglers have tried to pass off illegal elephant tusks as legal mammoth tusks. Hence attempts in the past to make the woolly mammoth a protected species

It's a tricky dilemma but hopefully one Ball and his team will help solve.


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