From Elephants to Chess Pieces…How A Forensics Lab in Sacramento Helps Combat the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Oakland Zoo
January 11, 2024

In September 2023, the Zoo organized its second Toss the Tusk event, to raise awareness about the devastating effects of the illegal wildlife trade. Attendees brought all kinds of items made with animals -- ivory carvings, fur coats, jewelry, and more. The event highlighted the importance of increased awareness while traveling, purchasing pets, and making choices that can contribute to fighting against this catastrophic, multibillion-dollar a year industry.

Over 400 items containing animal parts were relinquished by attendees -- but what happens to these items after the event? They gain new ‘life’ through our partners at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and serve a great purpose in combatting the trade they were a part of.

Relinquished chess set from Oakland Zoo's Toss the Tusk event

It's easy to see why people would buy this ornate chess set as a souvenir or gift, but it was made using ivory from the tusks of over nine African elephants poached in 10 African countries. The poachers sold the raw ivory to wholesalers and craftsmen, who exported it before carving it into various items. How do we know these details? Through a fascinating and impressive process…read on! 

Adrienne Mrsny, Conservation Manager at Oakland Zoo, drops off items to Ashley Spicer, Senior Wildlife Forensic Specialist at California Department of Fish and Wildlife

For items like these chess pieces, it takes forensics to figure out what animal it came from and where it came from. A team of four scientists at the CDFW Forensics Lab in Sacramento extract DNA from these items and add the info their DNA database. CDFW houses thousands of items that help assist with resolving future trafficking cases and for educational resources. They are one of the only wildlife forensics divisions focused on trade in the U.S.

Even though a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States in 2017, ivory is still sold worldwide and makes its way into the U.S. each year. The illegal trade of ivory is a lucrative industry that threatens the survival of elephant populations, endangers local communities, and undermines national and regional security. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) projects around 15,000 animals are killed each year for their tusks and estimates we’ve lost 80% of the planet’s African elephants in the past century.

By collecting items like these at our Toss the Tusk event, we take them out of the industry and into the hands of the CDFW team, helping end the illegal wildlife trade in the U.S. and worldwide -- and you can help, too!

Confiscated items at California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Forensics Lab

“The community participation at these events gives people the opportunity to champion wildlife, just by dropping off an unwanted item that may have been in their family for generations,” says Amy Gotliffe, VP of Conservation at Oakland Zoo.

The CDFW Forensics Lab utilizes ivory items to educate law enforcement on identifying different types of ivory by looking at their distinguishing features. This helps in active cases and prosecution. Additionally, CDFW law enforcement has 16 trained canines that detect scents to help officers identify these illegal items. The Forensics Lab is also planning to expand their projects to create databases for feathers and leathers. These items are waiting to be analyzed in their facility.

Thanks to the work of the four scientists at the Forensics Lab, we now have a better understanding of where these products come from. We can also identify where sales are still being made, even with bans in many countries, including the U.S. This knowledge helps us to identify where work needs to be done.

ID Kits made by the CDFW Forensics Lab for Law Enforcement to use when investigating illegal wildlife trade cases

The illegal wildlife trade is a significant threat to global wildlife, with thousands of species at risk of being traded illegally. It is considered the fourth most lucrative transnational crime, after drugs, human trafficking, and arms trafficking. This trade not only endangers animal health, but also poses a risk to human health by spreading zoonotic diseases (diseases that generally exist in animals but can infect humans).

Oakland Zoo is committed to finding impactful ways to make a difference in the lives of its resident animals and wildlife around the world. Although the illegal wildlife trade has affected many animals, we can still take action to protect wildlife and honor the lives of those already lost.