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Ivory Poaching: Elephant DNA May Crack Down on Ilegal African Ivory Trade (VIDEO)

First Posted: Jun 19, 2015 07:13 AM EDT

Scientists may actually be able to trace poaching with the help of a little DNA. Researchers have started to use DNA from tons of ivory samples in order to find out where in Africa ivory is coming from.

"Africa is a huge continent, and poaching is occurring everywhere," said Samuel Wasser, one of the researchers, in a news release. "When you look at it that way it seems like a daunting task to tackle this problem. But when you look at large ivory seizures, which represent 70 percent of illegal ivory by weight, you get a different picture."

Previously, Wasser used DNA from elephant dung, tissue and hair collected across the continent in order to map genetic signatures for regional populations. He then developed methods to extract DNA from the ivory, allowing him to analyze seized contraband and determine the elephant's original population.

About 50,000 African elephants are now being killed each year from a population of fewer than 500,000 animals. Poaching is driving these animals toward extinction, which means that finding out where poachers are hitting the hardest is important for saving these animals.

"Understanding that vast amounts of this major transnational trade is focused on two primary areas makes it possible to focus law enforcement on those areas and eliminate the largest amount of illegal killing," said Wasser.

Wasser and his team used their method to analyze 28 large ivory seizures, each more than half a ton, made between 1996 and 2014. The samples included 61 percent of all large seizures made worldwide between 2012 and 2014.

The new research revealed a shift in poaching hotspots beginning in 2006. During the earlier years, most forest elephant ivory was assigned to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but none of the forest elephant samples after 2005 came from that area. Two seizures of savanna elephant ivory, in 2002 and 2007, came from Zambia, but the country was not represented in any of the samples after 2007.

"When you're losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something more urgent-nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at the source," said Wasser. "Hopefully our results will force the primary source countries to accept more responsibility for their part in this illegal trade, encourage the international community to work closely with these countries to contain the poaching, and these actions will choke the criminal networks that enable this transnational organized crime to operate."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

Want to learn more? Check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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