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Ivory stockpile. © JABRUSON/FFI

Cambodia’s first conservation genetics lab to tackle illegal ivory trade

Posted on: 21.08.17 (Last edited) 21 August 2017

A new £300,000 grant will help Fauna & Flora International tackle the growing illegal trade of ivory in Cambodia – work that will include support to the country’s first conservation genetics laboratory to identify the origin of seized ivory.

The grant from the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will help Fauna & Flora International (FFI) tackle illegal ivory trade in Cambodia – a country at risk of driving ivory trade in the future. The funding will enable FFI to improve law enforcement, increase knowledge of Cambodian ivory markets and trade networks and develop a database of genetic markers for identifying the origins of ivory.

Shifting ivory markets in Southeast Asia

Cambodia has been identified as a country ‘important to watch’ for illegal ivory trade by CITES, as it has potential to become a major country for ivory sale in the future. There is concern that China’s near complete ban on ivory trade might shift Chinese demand for ivory to other countries such as Cambodia.

In 2015 and 2016, FFI conducted market surveys to investigate the current level of ivory trade and consumer base in three major Cambodian cities: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihannoukville. The data collected suggests that the country’s domestic ivory market may be growing. Many of the shops and retailers selling ivory products were aimed at Chinese tourists.

Being able to identify whether the ivory comes from African or Asian (pictured) elephants is important in better understanding poaching and trade networks. Credit Jeremy Holden/FFI

Being able to identify whether the ivory comes from African or Asian (pictured) elephants is important in better understanding poaching and trade networks. Credit Jeremy Holden/FFI

Using DNA to help understand poaching networks

The Defra grant will allow FFI to continue to build on its understating of Cambodia’s ivory markets through continued market surveys in these three cities as well as research trade networks. This information will be crucial to support effective interventions and policy to stop illegal trade in ivory.

Excitingly, the grant will also allow FFI to build on its existing work with the Royal University of Phnom Penh to further support Cambodia’s first conservation genetics laboratory, which FFI helped to create in 2016. Staff will be trained in DNA analysis techniques to identify the origin of seized ivory.

Using elephant dung previously collected by FFI and the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group, genetic markers will be developed that allow confiscated ivory to be tested to see whether it is of African or Asian origin, providing useful information about poaching and trade networks.

“With this project we are looking to get ahead of a potentially big issue,” noted Dr Jackson Frechette, FFI Cambodia’s Flagship Species Manager. “As Thailand and China become more proactive in stopping the ivory trade, there is considerable risk of it becoming diverted to Cambodia. If we are successful here, it will truly be a big win for conservation.”

It is estimated that more than 30,000 African elephants are killed for their ivory every year. © JABRUSON/FFI

It is estimated that more than 30,000 African elephants are killed for their ivory every year. © JABRUSON/FFI

Helping the Royal Government of Cambodia to close policy loopholes

African elephant populations have declined by 30% between 2007 and 2014 and it is estimated that more than 30,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory. Through its market surveys, FFI determined that the ivory currently on sale in Cambodia likely comes from African elephants.

The sale of ivory has been prohibited in Cambodia since 1994, but this does not include ivory that originates from outside of Cambodia, such as African ivory. FFI will be working with government partners to address this gap in legislation.

Asian elephants are also facing severe threat, with fewer than 52,000 Asian elephants remaining. FFI will be supporting the implementation of National Plans such as The Cambodia Elephant Conservation Action Plan and National Ivory Action Plan to help tackle the decline in this species.

All of these actions will help to disrupt trade networks and ultimately reduce Cambodia’s role in the transit and marketing of ivory, making illegal trade just that bit harder.

Written by
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Alice Bücker

Alice is interested in plants and started working at FFI with the Agricultural Landscapes team looking at the links between biodiversity and agriculture. She now works as the Conservation Partnerships Administrator supporting the cross cutting teams.

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“With this project we are looking to get ahead of a potentially big issue. As Thailand and China become more proactive in stopping the ivory trade, there is considerable risk of it becoming diverted to Cambodia. If we are successful here, it will truly be a big win for conservation.”

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