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DNA Test Pinpoints Elephant Poaching, Aiding Conservation

Genetic evidence could prove key in halting the illegal slaughter of Africa's elephants for their ivory tusks
African elephant


By 1989 more than half of African elephants had been slaughtered for their tusks. That year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned international shipment of ivory and, combined with foreign aid to help African countries fight poaching, almost immediately brought an end to its trade. But, as ivory prices crept up during the 1990s and early 2000s, poaching returned. In June 2002 officials in Singapore seized a container from Malawi filled with 6.5 tons of ivory—requiring the deaths of as many as 6,500 African elephants. Using a new DNA test, researchers traced the tusks back to elephants from Zambia, confirming fears that a renewed slaughter was underway, but also raising hopes that a ban could be enforced by providing the evidence needed to pinpoint where the poachers were operating.

Using microsatellite DNA collected from elephant dung, conservation biologist Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington and his colleagues created a genetic map of the varying elephant populations in Africa. By extracting DNA from the captured tusks, Wasser and his team were able to determine that much of the contraband came from Zambia. "We still can't say for sure that it all came from Zambia," Wasser says. "But certainly the bulk of it did."

Seizures of contraband ivory have been on the rise since the 1990s; between August 2005 and August 2006, 12 shipments of African ivory—amounting to 23,461 kilograms (25.86 tons)—were seized on their way to Asia despite the CITES ban, according to a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But report co-author Bill Clark, a wildlife law enforcement official, estimates that this amount represents 10 percent or less of the ivory black market, meaning that as many as 23,000 elephants are being killed annually to fuel this illegal trade, which can net $750 a kilogram for a high quality tusk. "There is a legal market out there. CITES only prevents people from shipping ivory across borders," Wasser notes. "That means that all these smugglers have to do is get it into the country, then they're home free and they'll make a killing."

Criminal syndicates, seduced by profits to be made, are not deterred by bans on elephant hunting. Sudanese Janjaweed militias slaughter elephants in Chad, Somali warlords send their soldiers into Kenya to kill elephants and other organized gangs illegally hunt the great mammals throughout Africa, according to Clark. Poorly funded park rangers are no match for the violent, well-organized poachers, who kill law enforcement agents that get in their way. "[Park rangers] are paid the equivalent of $54 a month. A poacher will be getting $40 a kilogram and a typical elephant will yield 10 kilograms of ivory," Clark says. "That's almost a year's salary for a ranger. There's an enormous financial incentive and it's coming from the Far East."

Consumers in China and Japan prize ivory as a status symbol for signature stamps and other goods, but Asian elephant populations have been reduced to remnants. Neither of these countries have shown much interest in cracking down on the illegal trade in African elephant tusks. While Japan was applying for and receiving a permit from CITES to become a legal trader in approved ivory stockpiles last year, 2.8 tons of illegal ivory were seized in Osaka Harbor. In 2000 an ivory smuggler in Japan caught with $100,000 worth of elephant tusks was fined 300,000 yen ($2,700).

With ivory prices still rising, Africa's remaining elephants may be in even more jeopardy than they were in 1989. "When you look at the fact that the trade is tracking the price increase, a year from now it is going to completely overshadow the earlier rates," Wasser says. "There are a lot less elephants now to be poaching. This has become a more serious problem than it was back then."

Wasser and Clark believe that the trade can be halted again by adequately paying and equipping African antipoaching rangers as well as by educating consumers—especially those in Asia, where ivory is most popular—about the real cost of ivory: the possible extinction of African elephants. They say officials can launch an education campaign much like that waged by WildAid with the help of basketball star Yao Ming to curb the Chinese enthusiasm for shark fin soup.

Wasser and his colleagues, using the new genetic tests, are working closely with Interpol and other enforcement agencies to trace how the ivory moves from an elephant's jaw to a Chinese desk. "Seizing the ivory doesn't save the elephants," Wasser says. "We need to shut the market down and keep the ivory in Africa."

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