Public Release: 

DNA from illegal ivory points to poaching hotspots in Africa

American Association for the Advancement of Science

This news release is available in Japanese.

New genetic tools are helping researchers to trace illegal ivory back to the elephant populations from which it came, and they might help law enforcement crack down on poaching in the future. Elephant poaching is happening at rates that threaten African populations with extinction. After analyzing 28 ivory seizures made between 1996 and 2014 -- each of them containing half a ton of tusks or more -- Samuel Wasser and colleagues suggest that the illegal ivory trade has been fueled primarily by two poaching hotspots in Africa since about 2006. However, these regions probably won't remain hotspots for long, according to the researchers. Their data suggest that poachers move on to new pastures fairly soon after such hotspots are identified. To determine the locations of major elephant poaching sites, the researchers first sampled DNA from the dung of 1,350 elephants -- both savanna and forest elephants -- from 71 different locations across 29 African countries, using their results to create a map of elephant populations. They then analyzed DNA in large seizures of ivory and assigned them to specific elephant populations across the continent. Their results suggest that 96% of ivory seizures originated from a total of four geographical areas -- and that after 2007, the vast majority of ivory seizures became concentrated in just two areas. In the past nine years or so, most savanna elephant tusks have come from Tanzania and Mozambique while most forest elephant tusks have originated in Gabon, the Republic of Congo, or the Central African Republic, according to the researchers. Their findings indicate that most ivory seizures were shipped (or about to be shipped) out of a different country from where they originated. The researchers suggest that their DNA forensics technique could be adapted for other animals as well -- and that its accuracy could be improved to help law enforcement identify poaching hotspots in time to mount coordinated, international responses. Right now, the illegal trade of wildlife has become the world's fourth largest transnational organized crime, they say, and African ivory represents a major part of that trade. A Perspective article by A. Rus Hoelzel explains these findings and their implications in greater detail.


Article #20: "Genetic assignment of large seizures of elephant ivory reveals Africa's major poaching hotspots," by S.K. Wasser; L. Brown; C. Mailand; S. Mondol; C. Laurie; B.S. Weir at University of Washington in Seattle, WA; W. Clark at INTERPOL in Lyon, France; S. Mondol at Wildlife Institute of India in Chandrabani, India.

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