CSI Wildlife: DNA Forensics Used to Prevent Elephant Poaching

Dead elephants, poaching photo

Illegal Ivory Smuggling

The black-market value of elephant tusks has quadrupled since 2004. Even if over 68 tons of ivory have been confiscated over the past decade, poachers and smugglers are still doing good business and killing many elephants, including in countries where they are endangered.

New Weapon to Fight Poaching

But anti-poaching investigators have a new tool at their disposal. It's not a cure for the problem, but it should help them be more effective and target their resources better. DNA forensics can allow them to know from where the illegal elephant tusks are coming from. For example, 605 elephant tusks valued at $8 million that were seized at the port of Hong Kong were traced back via DNA to forest elephants that lived in southern Gabon, near the Republic of Congo border.

Poaching Elephant tusks photo


"In big seizures, there's a very strong tendency to ship ivory out of a different country than where it's poached... It's a bit of a red herring," said Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology and the lead author of the study, published in this month's issue of Conservation Biology. "The methods we developed are very important in that regard because it focuses where the poaching is ongoing."

There are already results. After it was revealed that most of the ivory seized in Singapore came from elephants in Zambia, that country's director of wildlife was replaced and its courts began to impose harsher sentences for ivory smugglers.

Update: CSI Wildlife Part Two: 2 Eco-Crimes Unmasked by DNA Forensics

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