Telltale Tusks

Sequencing DNA from ivory may be useful for tracking down elephant poachers.

By Amanda B. Keener | June 22, 2015

©ART WOLFE

Poaching elephants for ivory is big business in many parts of Africa. Now a new method to isolate and sequence DNA from ivory is proving a useful tool in the efforts to trace its source and the poachers who harvested it.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, Interpol, and the Wildlife Institute of India sequenced DNA isolated from a stockpile of ivory confiscated between 1996 and 2014 and compared their results to 15,000 reference sequences representing all major elephant groups throughout Africa. The results, published last week (June 18) in Science Express showed that nearly all of the ivory seized after 2007 came from just two areas: one in Tanzania and the other in the Tridom region, which spans parts of Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and Cameroon.

“The hope is that, by showing that the lion’s share of major poaching is going on in these two areas, it will make it very difficult for these countries to continue to deny the extent of their responsibility,”  study coauthor Samuel Wasser, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington told Smithsonian. “I also hope that it causes the international community to really pool together to work with these counties to help them solve this problem.”

The list of geographical origins of most of the ivory seized before 2007 was only slightly longer, including a total of four areas. According to New Scientist, Interpol has already used this information to track the smugglers who transport it. "It's helped us a great deal, because so many false trails are left deliberately by the smugglers," study coauthor William Clark, an environmental crime program consultant for Interpol told New Scientist. "Now we have this DNA repository, it helps us establish investigating priorities." 

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