DNA map helps track ivory smugglers

Using a genetic map of African elephants, scientists have pinpointed the areas where smugglers are killing elephants to supply the global ivory trade, the Observer reported. The discovery that most recently seized tusks came from animals in two reserves on the Tanzania and Mozambique borders suggests that a handful of cartels are responsible for most of the illegal trade, the scientists said.

“The vast majority of poaching is being carried out by a few big organisations — possibly one or two major syndicates — that are targeting one area,” said Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Centre for Conservation Biology, where the DNA map was developed. “It is grim, but it also suggests we can target our anti-poaching efforts very specifically by focussing efforts on these regions.”

Tanzania is presently at the centre of the slaughter for ivory, with the focus on the Selous and Niassa reserves. The extent of the trade is seen in recent interceptions of thousands of elephant tusks in separate raids in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. Demand for ivory is growing in increasingly wealthy and industrialised parts of Asia, where it often is considered a status symbol by the middle classes.

Ivory prices have soared from US$200 a kilogramme in 2004 to more than $6,000. Scientists estimate that 8% to 10% of Africa’s elephants are being killed annually to meet the demand for ivory.

The technique used by Wasser’s team involves two separate sets of analyses. DNA “fingerprints” from dung samples and tusk sections are compared to pinpoint an elephant’s origin. About 1,500 tusks found in raids on docks in Hong Kong and Taiwan all were traced by Wasser’s method to the Selous and Niassa reserves.

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