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  • Writer's pictureEPI Secretariat

Tracing Smuggled Ivory, One Invisible Mark at a Time

Updated: Mar 25

As we go about life, safety is something we think about constantly. Not just personal safety, but material safety too. That’s why we activate “find my phone” whenever we get a new device, in the hope that if it is lost or stolen it will be returned. Over the years, the Elephant Protection Initiative has been wondering how to make it easier for governments to track stolen ivory back to the storeroom of origin.


Left: EPI's Assistant Director of Stockpile Management, Ulysse Korogone alongside the DGEFC staff that attended the training. Right: DGEFC Smartwater painting staff, checking single piece of wildlife products.


While on this quest, we came across SmartWater, a unique solution for marking valuable assets, developed by DeterTech, a UK based security company. SmartWater is being used by the UK police to combat theft. We saw an opportunity to use this technology to add an extra layer of protection and traceability for ivory and other items in wildlife stockpiles.



(Left to Right) Direction Générale des Eaux, Forêts et Chasse (DGEFC) staff painting *ivory pieces with SmartWater liquid, the products with the invisible marking under natural light, the ivory pieces lighting up under UV light.


At this point, you may be asking what SmartWater is about. SmartWater is a forensic marking solution. It is a traceable but invisible chemical marker that can be applied to valuable items. Each batch of SmartWater is uniquely coded, allowing marked items to be traced to a specific source. The marker can be detected initially using ultraviolet light (UV), and then analysed to link it to an original location.


Wildlife products with SmartWater on in normal light, and the same piece under UV light (which shows the SmartWater in neon green).


Application of SmartWater in Benin


In December 2023, the government of Benin piloted this new initiative. The EPI Foundation trained and equipped their personnel on how to use SmartWater in the management of their wildlife product stockpile. The implementation process began with a demonstration of SmartWater and its uses to the staff of the Direction Générale des Eaux, Forêts et Chasse (DGEFC). We showed them the protocols for applying the liquid on to three ivory pieces.


(From Left to Right) Ulysse Korogone from the EPI presenting SmartWater and its use, Nature Topicale NGO and EPIF local partner experimenting SmartWater with painting staff.


After formal approval by the DGEFC to use SmartWater, it was applied to the entire stock of ivory and other wildlife products in Benin’s central storeroom in January 2024.


Demonstration on how SmartWater application is done to DGEFC staff.


This involved removing all products from the storeroom, so that Smartwater could be applied on to them, using brushes or spray. The products were then dried in the open air for an hour.  A UV lamp was used to ensure that the product had adhered and was effective. After that the items were returned to the storeroom and secured.

 

Mr Rémi HEFOUME on behalf of the DGEFC expressed his satisfaction with the use of SmartWater and his gratitude to the EPI Foundation for providing financial and technical support for this activity.

 

The effectiveness of any forensic technology, including SmartWater, depends on proper application, awareness, and collaboration with law enforcement. SmartWater needs to be used in conjunction with storeroom management procedures and other security aspects, which Benin has been implementing.

 

As the EPI Foundation, we highly commend Benin for being a pace setter in applying different measures to prevent its ivory from entering the illegal wildlife trade; from training their staff on the standard operating procedures, securing their storerooms, and implementing forensic markings on their wildlife products. Read more about the work we are doing in Benin.


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