Radiocarbon dating of elephant ivory tusks leads to conviction

March 3, 2015 - Toronto, Ontario

Toronto-based Five Star Auctions and Appraisals, and its Director, Mrs. Chun Al Jin, pleaded guilty on February 27, 2015, to charges under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA). The company and its Director were fined $9,375 each for a total penalty of $18,750 and ordered to forfeit two elephant ivory tusks to authorities.

In November 2013, Environment Canada enforcement officers learned that two carved elephant ivory tusks--measuring 78 cm and weighing 1.7 kg each--were being offered for sale by a Toronto-based auction house, which claimed the tusks were “antique”. Acting on legal authority, officers temporarily detained the tusks and, using radiocarbon dating technology, both were analyzed by experts at Université Laval and Columbia University. The forensic report revealed that the tusks were from animals killed in 1977 and 1978. While this age may qualify as “antique” in the auction house world, a person who is knowingly in possession of elephant ivory for the purpose of offering it for sale is in contravention of WAPPRIITA, unless they can establish that the animal was taken from the wild before July 3, 1975, or that the elephant ivory was legally imported into Canada. Elephant ivory legally imported into Canada is exempt from the prohibition. In this case, the offenders pleaded guilty to possessing and offering prohibited ivory for sale.

The case against Five Star Auctions and Appraisals is the first time that radiocarbon dating technology has been used to obtain a conviction under wildlife law in Canada, and one of only a half dozen cases where this technique has been successfully used worldwide.

Quick Facts

  • The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement to regulate, or in some cases to prohibit, trade in specific species of wild animals and plants, as well as their respective parts and derivatives. Environment Canada is the lead agency responsible for CITES implementation in Canada. WAPPRIITA is the legislation used to implement CITES in Canada.
  • Annually, international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and to include hundreds of millions of plant and animal specimens. The existence of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of trade is an important part of safeguarding these resources for the future.
  • Radiocarbon dating measures the continuous decay of the radioactive isotope of carbon, 14C, in order to determine when an animal died.
  • Elephant poaching and ivory trafficking impacts conservation efforts, as well as threatening social and economic security in many parts of central and eastern Africa. According to the CITES Secretariat, 15,000 elephants were illegally killed during 2012 for their ivory. The Government of Canada is currently implementing $2 million in emergency aid to counter wildlife trafficking in Eastern Africa.

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