This elephant was killed inside Chad's Zakouma National Park last October when poachers trained automatic weapons on a grazing herd. It is one of the estimated 38,000 annual victims of the illegal ivory trade. Image: Jeff Hutchens Reportage by Getty Images
- After the near elimination of elephant poaching following the 1989 ban on ivory, demand has returned. Elephant populations are now being decimated like never before.
- Researchers can now accurately map elephant populations over the entire African continent using the DNA in their scat.
- Scientists use this map and DNA extracted from ivory to trace illegal shipments back to their source. The first results from three major seizures show that sophisticated criminal networks are targeting specific groups for intense exploitation.
In 1983 while exploring a small forest called Malundwe on the edge of the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, one of us (Wasser) came across two elephant skulls lying side by side. One, from a female, was big, and the other was small—it had molars just a quarter the size of the female’s and they had not yet been used enough to show any signs of wear. The poachers had first shot the young elephant, a ranger explained, so that they could draw its grieving mother close enough to kill her for her enormous tusks. This exploitation of familial ties in the sophisticated social system of elephants has been repeated thousands of times in Africa.
The Selous Game Reserve is the largest protected area in Africa but was nonetheless among the most heavily poached during the well-publicized slaughters that occurred between 1979 and 1989. At least 700,000 elephants were killed during this period—70,000 in the Selous alone. Then, in 1989, Tanzania’s new director of wildlife launched a major antipoaching initiative called Operation Uhai. The combined effort of wildlife rangers, police officers and the military rapidly brought an end to most poaching in the country.