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Science Steps in Against the Illegal Ivory Trade

More than 85 percent of the savanna elephant ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 was traced to East Africa. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)
More than 85 percent of the savanna elephant ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 was traced to East Africa. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

There are approximately 50,000 African elephants being killed each year, and this is from a population of fewer than 500,000 animals. The poaching of ivory is driving elephants to extinction, but biologist Samuel Wasser has developed a way for police and governments to pinpoint where the ivory has come from.

“We’ve been doing this work for quite a long time now and started to see these patterns of repeat offenders: the same countries showing up over and over in the seizures,” Wasser said. “That doesn’t mean that poaching isn’t occurring everywhere, it is. But it means that the areas that have the biggest national organized crime syndicates operating are really focused primarily in these two places.”

Of the 28 total seizures, 23 were genetically assigned to a different main country of origin than the country from which they were being shipped. Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Of the 28 total seizures, 23 were genetically assigned to a different main country of origin than the country from which they were being shipped. 
(Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

Wasser, from the University of Washington, is using DNA to trace where the illegal ivory has come from. Tons of ivory samples associated with large-scale trafficking were sampled, with the results showing that over the last decade it has mostly come from just two areas in Africa, those being from the forest and savanna elephants. The findings were published in the journal Science.

Tracking ivory—the science of saving elephants:

Wasser previously used DNA from elephant dung, tissue, and hair collected across the African continent to map genetic signatures for regional populations. He then developed methods to extract DNA from the ivory, allowing him to analyse seized contraband and determine the elephant’s original population, wrote the University of Washington.

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

Roughly 50,000 African elephants are now being killed each year from a population of fewer than 500,000 animals. Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Roughly 50,000 African elephants are now being killed each year from a population of fewer than 500,000 animals.
(Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

In an effort to help change the way elephant poaching is tackled, Wasser used DNA evidence to trace the source of illegal ivory to two main poaching hotspots in Africa.

These poaching hotspots are in East Africa and the central African Tridom.

More than 85 percent of the forest and savanna elephant ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 was found to originate from these two regions of Africa, wrote IFL Science.

“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,” Wasser said.

Elephant poaching on the rise:

Efforts against ivory trafficking have been mainly been focused on the demand, but Wasser thinks that this method is happening too slowly.

“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,” Wasser said.

“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,” he added.

I think Wasser is on the right track—we need to stop the main killing as soon as we can.

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