Forensic Tools Battle Ivory Poachers

The illegal slaughter of African elephants for ivory is now worse than it was at its peak in the 1980s. New forensic tools based on DNA analysis can help stop the cartels behind this bloody trade
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Jeff Hutchens Reportage by Getty Images

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.

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