Analyzing ivory DNA leads us to the scene of the crime

Jun 18 2015

Within the last decade, one of the world’s most iconic and ecologically important species, the African elephant, is on the road toward extinction due to the illegal trafficking of their tusks. Right now, 96 elephants a day—that’s one every 15 minutes—are being slaughtered to fuel the illegal ivory trade. Africa’s sheer size and the vastness of elephant ecosystems means it is difficult for rangers to pin point where elephants are being targeted and set up choke points to target poachers.

In a new study published in Science, the University of Washington's Dr. Samuel K. Wasser summarizes the culmination of his nearly two decades of work by utilizing DNA from ivory confiscated in large busts to identify the major poaching hotspots in Africa.

Why does this matter? Because the DNA in the ivory can lead us to the scene of the crime and stopping demand alone won’t solve the problem before it’s too late. According to Dr. Wasser’s data derived from 28 large ivory seizures (over a half-ton per seizure) there are two high-activity poaching areas in Africa where elephants are being killed at an industrial level for their ivory. Increasing law enforcement and vigilance in these areas may be the turning point in the fight to arrest poachers, disrupt trafficking rings, identify kingpins and allow one of Africa’s most iconic species to rebound.

With support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Dr. Wasser’s work uncovered significant scientific insights that can empower governments and people across Africa with the information they need to protect elephants and prioritize the populations requiring the most resources. Dr. Wasser’s study, along with Paul Allen’s support of the Great Elephant Census, demonstrates the power of cutting-edge technology and data can inform conservation practices and help us protect an iconic species. 

Read the full study (Subscription needed)