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Scientists use DNA from elephant trunks to find poaching hotspots

Scientists have used DNA from seized ivory to track the locations where elephant poaching is high. They have tracked the tusks to two areas where poaching is very common.

Poached ivory is shipped to several countries illegally including several Asian countries and the USA.

Elephant poaching for ivory has become a big problem. Estimates say 50,000 African elephants are killed every year for their tusks. There remain only about 470,000 individual African elephants. In 1989 a ban on ivory trading was put into place which has reduced the number of elephants being poached but unfortunately not stopped it.

28 tusks were seized from poachers. In order to determine where the tusks came from, scientists first sampled DNA in hair and tissue samples from elephants in the wild throughout Africa. Using this DNA, a map of the elephant population in Africa was made. They then took DNA samples from the tusks and compared them to the DNA from the tissue and hair samples of live elephants. If the DNA between the tusk and the sample from a specific area matched, then the tusk came from an elephant that lived in that area. Using this method, they tracked the tusks to two areas of Africa.

One area where the tusks were tracked to were areas around southeastern Tanzania and Northern Mozambique and the other was around northeastern Gabon, northwestern Republic of Congo and southwestern Central African Republic.

Samuel Wasser, a biologist at the University of Washington and head of the study said, “We were very, very surprised to find that over the last decade almost all of these seizures came from just two places in Africa,”

“Targeting these areas for law enforcement could stop the largest amount of poaching-related mortality in Africa and choke at the major sources of ivory fueling the criminal networks that allow this transnational organized crime to operate,” Wasser also said.

Wasser says elephant are a keystone species meaning they are very important to the function of ecosystems so saving them should be a priority. Hopefully this finding will increase interest in protecting them.

Increasing law enforcement in these two areas linked to high poaching will hopefully be a big step towards stopping the ivory trade and populations of African elephants can be restored.

About Harry H

Harry H
Harry is currently studying biology and chemistry in University and hopes to go to grad school for evolutionary biology. He enjoys writing about sciences and sports and is a big fan of hockey and soccer. Some of his other interests are reading and rock climbing. Contact Harry: harry.h@youthindependent.com