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Elephant CSI: Using DNA to Help Fight Poaching

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Elephant with her calf

Comparing DNA from seized ivory to an elephant DNA database is revealing new information on how poaching syndicates and illegal dealers are operating.

The development of a DNA forensics technique may prove to be a valuable weapon in the bloody war against elephant poaching.

According to BBC News, Professor Sam Wasser of the Center or Conservation Biology at the University of Washington is fighting back against these criminals using DNA collected from elephant dung and ivory to expose poaching hotspots.

Dr. Wasser pointed out that not knowing the origin of the ivory keeps law enforcement in the dark. It allows killers to return to the same locations over and over again because anti-poaching efforts are virtually non-existent.

And thanks to a collection of hundreds of elephant dung samples spanning the last decade, Dr. Wasser and his team have mapped the genetic variations of elephants from across the subcontinent, using 16 specific genes from the elephant genome.

Using the DNA extracted from an elephant’s tusk (simply an overgrown tooth), Dr. Wasser’s team can compare the makeup of the 16 genes from the tusk to the DNA in their database – giving them a strong chance of knowing the elephant’s origin.

The key to identifying the elephants lies in their location: The closer together that elephant populations live, the more genetically similar they are. Thus, statistical analysis in the lab enables Dr. Wasser’s team to determine where the poached ivory originated with surprising preciseness – possibly within “several tens of kilometers.”

These DNA tests provide additional evidence to support the appalling practice of fulfilling elephant ivory (and rhino horn) “orders” via poaching:

In fact they (the dealers) get a purchase order – we need so many tusks at such a time – and they go and hammer these populations over and over again – the same population. So they are doing major, major devastation.

Exposing poaching hotspots

Dr. Wasser’s “elephant CSI” appears to be on the right track.

When two large illegal shipments in 2006 containing 5.2 tonnes of ivory in Taiwan, and 2.6 tonnes seized in Hong Kong were analyzed, DNA testing exposed Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania as a potential poaching hotspot.

Also in 2006, a 3.5 tonne shipment of ivory left Africa from the port city of Douala in Cameroon, and was subsequently seized in Hong Kong. The tusks were hidden behind a false wall in a shipping container. Investigators later discovered ivory chips in two additional shipping containers with false walls.

Despite the fact that these illegal ivory shipments had come out of Cameroon, DNA analysis at the lab actually determined that most the ivory was from neighboring Gabon. Dr. Wasser explained that

There wasn’t a lot of indication of heavy poaching in Gabon so this exposed Gabon as a very significant poaching area.

All three shipping containers were owned by a Taiwanese national living in Cameroon.

Protecting elephants

Using the DNA data generated by Dr. Wasser’s forensic techniques can help identify regions where the animals are most vulnerable – areas frequented by poachers because of unrestrained access to elephants.

Unfortunately, winning this brutal war takes more than “identifying” vulnerable regions. Wildlife authorities must be able – and willing – to take serious action against the powerful poaching syndicates that are robbing Africa of its environmental treasures.

So far, the poachers just keep walking away.

While ivory seizures are becoming more frequent, the criminals are not being prosecuted. Most of the individuals are allowed to claim “diplomatic immunity” – even when in possession of ivory. There are emerging reports that Chinese nationals are able to pay a fee in order to ensure a “hassle-free” airport experience as they transport illegal ivory and rhino horn from Africa to Asia.

But that is tragically just one of many battles in the war against elephant poaching: Elephants in Kenya are enduring widespread slaughter in the areas where Chinese construction projects are located – and this is not hidden, nor does it require DNA analysis.

Some scientists have warned that if the current rate of poaching is maintained, elephants will be extinct from sub-Saharan Africa within 15 years.

Extinct. Extinct at the hands of humans.

Image source: / CC BY 2.0

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