People in New York City’s Times Square will witness plumes of pulverized bone erupt as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushes one ton of confiscated ivory Friday to protest the illegal poaching of African elephants for the ivory trade. The event follows the only other high-profile ivory crush in the U.S., a six-ton eradication of seized tusks in November 2013.
The brutality of the ivory trade has crippled all elephant populations worldwide, with 50,000 African elephants killed each year, leaving an estimated 434,000 remaining, according to a study published today in Science. This means 10 percent of the population is slaughtered annually, putting the elephants on a fast track to extinction.
The study’s lead author, Samuel Wasser, a biologist at the University of Washington, has pioneered the use of DNA forensics to trace the origins of illegally obtained ivory. Wasser and his team began by mapping the genetic signatures of elephant populations across Africa with DNA found in the animals’ dung. Now Wasser takes the DNA signature straight from the ivory, enabling him to track exactly where elephants were killed. His team analyzed 28 ivory seizures made between 1996 and 2014, each constituting half a ton of tusks or more. The shipments have been linked to transnational organized crime syndicates and African terrorist organizations.
The study revealed that 96 percent of ivory seizures originated from four geographical areas, and from just two after 2007. (The illegal ivory trade has doubled globally since then, according to another study.) Wasser’s results suggest most savanna elephant tusks originate from Tanzania and Mozambique whereas most forest elephant tusks come from Gabon, the Republic of the Congo or the Central African Republic. Wasser hopes this data will prove useful to international law enforcement officials as they concentrate efforts in key areas to thwart the criminal networks that fuel this multibillion- dollar crime against nature.