Francesco Ungaro, Unsplash

Saving elephants from the saleroom

Discover how Caroline Cox is working to close legislative gaps that have allowed the illegal ivory trade to generate US$20 billion a year

First published in issue 3 of SOLVE magazine, 2021

It sounds like something from a Hollywood blockbuster: an ineffectual tranche of laws, shady ivory dealers, unscrupulous online traders, artificial intelligence and an academic on a mission … with parts also played by the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Family.

Yet Caroline Cox, Senior Law Lecturer and the Lead Researcher in the University of Portsmouth’s Ivory Project, has proven that reality can be as gripping a story as any pot-boiler fiction. At the beginning of the project, “which was intended to be something quite small”, says Ms Cox, “we were just looking at a very specific part of the ivory trade in the UK, [wanting] to know what antiques dealers understood about the law … but secretly, I hoped, we’d be able to change the law.”

The Fight Against the Ivory Trade
Dr Caroline Cox has always loved elephants but it was only after she learned of the critical flaws in the legislation around the sale of ivory that she saw how her research could play a crucial part in the battle to save them.

Dr Caroline Cox, Senior Lecturer at Portsmouth Law School:

I've always loved wildlife. Always.

And in 2005, my husband and I went to Southern Africa and had five days on safari in the Kruger. It was wonderful.

We were out one day with our Ranger and the Ranger says, "Everybody stay very quiet." I was like, "Oh my goodness, what's going to happen next?" And almost imperceivably at first, you could feel the ground start to shake.

And over the hill came a herd of 26 elephants.

It was absolutely astounding and I don't think I've ever been so moved by a sight in all my life.

Wild elephant numbers have dropped by 62% over the last decade, and an estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory.

I was having dinner with my husband, Alister.

Alister is an antiques expert, he's an antiques valuer, and he was telling me about ivory that was coming to him that he felt was illegal to sell.

Ivory in the UK can be sold provided it came from an elephant that died before 1947.

And the question is, of course, how do you know when the elephant died?

The burden was on the seller to certify that the item they were selling was legal to sell and from looking at it, tell you whether it was pre or post 1947, and that is almost impossible to do.

That really started me thinking about how the law could be changed to protect elephants from poaching, because poaching in the southern African states is a massive problem still now.

My research, of course, started some time before the Ivory Act came into force and actually started to get some momentum.

On 6 October 2017, six months after Dr Caroline Cox's "Ivory Report" was published, the British Government launched a consultation into the sale of ivory in the UK.

In 2018, it was kind of like a light bulb moment for the Conservative government and they decided they were going to consult on the continuing trade in ivory in the UK.

I responded to the consultation process on behalf of the Ivory Project and I'm really pleased to say they listened to some of it, which was amazing.

There is now a type of ivory passport, which is what I'd recommended, to enable it to be sold, and that certificate stays with the item forever.

It means that we are going to see an end to at least in the real world, sale of ivory unless it's got a certificate anymore.

Do I think it will end poaching?


My fear is that ivory will stop being sold in auction rooms and it will stop being sold in antique shops and it will go online where the regulation is just not so tight.

I could go onto eBay right now and show you hundreds, literally hundreds of pieces of ivory being sold.

But it's not being sold being called ivory.

It will be ox bone, it will be bovine bone.

I realised very quickly that actually things were changing online and it wasn't so much about the buzz word as the photography.

So how was I going to manage to look through thousands of photos of bone and ivory and one by one try and pick which is which?

It's almost impossible.

I really needed some help to do that.

And at that point we met Simone.

Simone is in his final year of his Ph.D.

He's a cosmologist, but he knows an awful lot about machine learning.

Machine learning is a subfield of artificial intelligence in which the algorithm or the model tries to learn from the data.

The computer vision algorithm has exactly the same approach that is used in self-driving cars, in which the goal is then to differentiate between people, between trees, between traffic lights.

And we are trying to do the basically the same thing, but in a more, much more specific way, we are just trying to distinguish bones from ivory objects.

These are two example of the things that we are trying to distinguish.

So this is an ivory object while this is made of bones.

You will be able to tell the difference if you get very close, because in this object there are present the Schrager lies in the very bottom while here there are the signature of the blood vessels that are inside the bones, that are this black spot that you can see.

They look very similar so it's going to be very hard to distinguish them.

We have already proved that with some machine learning approach we would be able to distinguish with a certain level of accuracy between the two.

And this can be incredibly useful, for example, for a police officer because that will discriminate automatically which of the images that they are finding online we will need to prosecute.

With something very simple we can achieve very big results.

The Ivory Project has played a small but significant role in ending the sale of ivory in the United Kingdom.

And that's an amazing thing to be able to say.

I know that we haven't solved the problem worldwide.

I know there are still poachers out there, but I've stopped the trade in the UK and that makes me feel good.

I think our next steps are going to be developing Simone's machine learning tool, his algorithm, to really perfect this.

If we can get the machine learning point to where we're able to go to somebody like eBay and say, "This is the tool you guys need" and if they could take this on board, we could stop the trade in illegal ivory at an instant online.

That would be incredible.

There's something about elephants, isn't there?

We have hunted them, we've used their ivory for millennia.

So for me, they embody the ability to keep going in the face of adversity.

It's extraordinary.

And I just find there's something incredible about that.

They're moving!

Certification of ivory

On the face of it, ivory dealers used to enjoy a reasonably straightforward set of self-certification standards in the trading and selling of ivory.

Number one: make sure it’s the real deal

Take a needle, perhaps just a regular sewing needle or a run-of-the-mill clothes pin, heat it up until the tip glows molten orange and scorching hot to the touch. If you hold that heated needle to the surface of your item and it does not press in, it is real ivory. If it smokes, you’re holding bone, or worse, if the needle slides in, you have a lump of plastic on your hands. This is the sort of pantomime or parlour trick used by hucksters selling contraband in a dark alley − a little theatre masquerading as a practical way to prove authenticity.

Number two: make sure it’s old

The existing law − based on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, better known as CITES – placed sales controls on how parts of endangered species or live specimens (think elephant or walrus tusks, rhinoceros’ horn, tortoise shells) are bought and sold. Items ‘worked’ (significantly altered from their natural raw state to create instruments, jewellery, artwork and so on) prior to March 1947 are legal to trade. Post-1947 ivory or ivory that is unaltered or ‘unworked’ is banned from being sold.

It had been hoped that dealers being unable to sell ‘new’ ivory would eventually put an end to poaching and killing protected species. Yet the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that still, on average, 55 elephants are killed every day for their tusks.

The problem, says Ms Cox, is that some dealers are not too concerned about the origin of their ivory and will maintain that the continual killing of elephants and the resultant illegal ivory streaming into the market has nothing to do with them or their trade.

“They will swear ‘I’m only interested in antique ivory; I don’t deal in new ivory’. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of how to be sure that the item being sold is pre-1947, you start to see the gaps. There is no certainty.”

  • 25 minutes

    On average one African elephant is killed by poachers every 25 minutes

  • 20 percent

    The amount by which the African elephant population fell from 2006–2015, to an estimated 415,000 elephants
  • £17 billion

    The estimated worth of the international trade in illegal ivory

(Source: Statista)

Caroline Cox, University of Portsmouth

The online illegal wildlife trade is greatly disturbing.

Caroline Cox, University of Portsmouth

Action on loopholes

Numerous interactions like these encouraged Ms Cox to closely examine the legislation, which was a loophole-riddled set of arbitrary dates, self-regulation, hazy definitions and expensive, poorly applied enforcement, all ripe for exploitation.

What followed was extensive consultation with key ivory stakeholders – antiques dealers, auction houses, museums and industry bodies such as the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) – that, alongside coinciding remarks from Prince William at the 2018 London Wildlife Conference on the urgency of action, ultimately led to Ms Cox and her team providing expert written recommendations to the UK Government consultation that led to the Ivory Act 2018.

The new Act starts on the basis that, unless an item falls within a very specific set of five derogations, you can’t sell ivory.

“We recommended that there should be a passport-type system, and that only really special pieces of ivory should be given a passport. Everything goes through the same process– ivory gets registered, and it cannot be sold without certification from a panel of experts.”

While still recognising that some ivory is culturally and historically important, and “there is artistic ivory out there that needs to be preserved,” Ms Cox’s focus is on closing loopholes that allow new ivory to be traded under the pre-1947 guise.

Despite a bevy of unsuccessful legal challenges by industry groups over the past three years, the Ivory Act 2018 is now on track for implementation, thanks in large part to citation of Ms Cox’s research in the Court of Appeal decision. This success has led the team to consider tackling larger issues of concern and wider regulation.

“The online illegal wildlife trade is greatly disturbing,” Cox says.

With the COVID-19 pandemic halting face-to-face interactions, online trade and demand for ivory products (and other illegal wildlife products) has skyrocketed in places such as Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and online sellers are becoming savvier: auction sites and sales platforms feature euphemisms for ivory products with scant product description. This ensures listings are not flagged, and when posted alongside high-quality photography featuring Schreger lines, indicates to buyers that real ivory is on offer.

“Schreger lines are the crosshatching of ivory,” Cox explains. “When you look at a piece of cut-through ivory, these crosshatchings are easy to spot and unique to ivory.”

This online boom has led to MS Cox to explore a partnership with the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, specifically looking at using its software to apply machine learning techniques to Ms Cox’s enormous library of pictures of ivory slices and crosshatchings with a view to trawl the internet for similar images and identify illegal online sellers.

With a small amount of funding and a pilot programme with the Metropolitan Police underway, Ms Cox believes that this new research can prove a failsafe way of finding ivory online, just from a posted picture. This could remove the financial and budgetary burden of manual detection on law enforcement, train British agencies to improve responsiveness to illegal sellers and have implications for mainstream platforms such as Facebook and ebay.

Ms Cox’s “small project” has grown considerably in magnitude and impact. Her research and legislative initiatives are now working together “to tackle some of the issues that I’ve been thinking about for so long – and want people to think about”, she says.

“Climate change, wildlife preservation – it’s more than just iconic species, it’s all around you. Do you want to benefit from that, do you want your children to benefit from that? There has got to be proper workable legislation in place that helps with this preservation – that would be my number one top rallying call.”

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