The online illegal wildlife trade is greatly disturbing.

Caroline Cox, University of Portsmouth


  • 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)

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.”

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.”

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.”