By Sal Amato
On October 8, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to crush its stockpile of elephant ivory consisting of 5.4 tons of whole tusks and small carvings — items that have been seized or abandoned to the US government over the last 20 years.
This planned event marks the first time that the United States has moved to destroy its ivory stockpile, and only the second time that a nation outside of Africa has done so. As we count down towards this historic event, I recall the first time I became aware of the inherent difficulties in trying to destroy elephant ivory.
In March of 2008, my son Michael, then a junior in high school, completed an informal, week long internship at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. Michael was contemplating a career as a scientist, particularly in the field of wildlife and environmental science. He had numerous discussions with teachers and advisors regarding the different types of work being done by scientists, i.e. field work, laboratory work etc. and we felt this would be an excellent opportunity to expose him to the work being done at a real laboratory by real scientists.
Upon arrival Michael was given a tour of the lab, and introduced to employees working in the different units. At the Morphology unit, Michael was shown how to identify ivory from different species using specific physical characteristics found in each. He was shown the distinctive cross-hatching, known as Schreger lines after the scientist who first described them, that is present in both elephant and mammoth ivory. The angle of the intersection of these lines, however, differs in elephants and mammoths and can be used to identify one form the other. He was also shown how to physically identify hippo ivory and walrus ivory from the shape of their cross section and the presence of secondary dentine respectively.
He was then asked to ponder the question, how would one go about identifying a sample of ivory that was devoid of any of these physical characteristics, such as is the case with a sample of ivory shavings (probably leftover residue from the carving process). More....