DNA from Elephant Ivory helps identify Poaching Hot-Spots


The broadest application of DNA has been discovered by the scientific community in an attempt to cease illegal ivory trafficking. Thousands of innocent elephants have been killed by poachers. DNA testing on ivory has led to the discovery of two elephant poaching ‘HOT-SPOTs’ in Africa. These DNA results help to trace the geographical indication of the seized ivory.

Approximately 50,000 elephants have been killed and there are about 400,000 African elephants barely left. After 2006, it was reported that majority of illegal ivory cases came into existence from Central Africa and Southeastern Africa. The countries of Gab, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic have also reported illegal poaching cases whereas the poaching hot spot straddles Tanzania and Mozambique.

University of Washington biologist, Samuel Wasser has made a pioneering contribution in using DNA extraordinarily to map out the illegal ivory trafficking and help investigators in geographical tracing to cease the execution of African elephant population. He previously used elephant dung, tissue, and hair for tracing the regional population. He then developed DNA extraction from the ivory, allowing him to examine detained contraband and determine the elephant’s original population. With an aim to trace the original location as its source from where the elephants have been poached, DNA extraction has been given utmost importance.

Since 2005, Wasser’s lab used to get ivory samples which were half-dollar shaped disks from near the base of the tusk and interestingly the numbers of samples have been greatly increased since 2013. This is when an international body unanimously decided that all large shipments of seized ivory should be subjected to forensic DNA testing to identify their origin. With this advancement, investigations show a shift in poaching hotspots beginning in 2006. Wasser analyzed elephant ivory that came from 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.

More than 85 % of the Savanna elephant ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 were traced to East Africa, mainly from the Selous Game Reserve in southeastern Tanzania and the Niassa Reserve in adjacent northern Mozambique. In 2011, the Savanna elephant hotspot began shifting northward, from southeastern Tanzania toward the Ruaha National Park and Rungwa Game Reserve in the country’s center, gradually creeping northward toward Kenya. The few seizures that did not fit the dominant geographic pattern showed other unusual signs, such as more complicated shipping strategies and a broader distribution of tusks which can be traced with newly explored DNA extraction methods.

It’s an alarming situation when we are losing thousands of elephants per year. In order to stop this, it’s most important to know their 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.”

Source: ScienceDaily. The original paper can be accessed here.