Ivory: Illegal Luxury

With global partners, the United States helps protect elephants by confronting the ivory trade.

How do you save elephants when the desire for ivory persists? Some nations that are home to elephants intensely defend the financial benefits legal ivory sales may bring to meet their local needs. But many other nations have agreed to stop all ivory trade. Efforts to curb the desire for ivory include intense public-awareness campaigns and strict law enforcement to eliminate billion-dollar illegal markets.

Posters to reduce demand for ivory, 2013–2017

Since 2016, most commercial ivory trade is banned in the United States. But a lively illegal trade continues, mostly through internet sales. U.S. government agencies and other organizations are partnering to reduce demand for ivory through a variety of public awareness campaigns.


Intercept: Seized ivory, around 2014

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents seized these ivory elephant objects smuggled into the United States. 

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Inspect: Sniffing out illegal ivory, 2017

The United States and some other countries use dogs to combat smugglers. This dog inspects for ivory at an airport in Sudan, a critical hub for traffickers. The U.S. African Elephant Conservation Fund funded this program.

Courtesy of AP/Mariah Quesada

Investigate: Fighting ivory trafficking with forensics

New technologies can now identify the date and origin of illegally sourced ivory and provide the evidence to bring traffickers to justice. Biologists developed a way to locate the origin of seized tusks by matching tusk DNA to the DNA in elephant dung on the ground in Africa. The U.S. African Elephant Conservation Fund and Wild Tomorrow Fund helped to underwrite a project to develop carbon-dating techniques for seized ivory samples in order to determine how long ago the elephant from which it came was killed.

Map of ivory poaching hot spots created from elephant DNA data, 2015
Data courtesy of University of Washington; graphic inspired by Mark Nowlin/The Seattle Times

Scientists Samuel Wasser (left) and Kevin Uno use carbon-dating technology to examine ivory, 2017

Courtesy of Wild Tomorrow Fund