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DNA Detectives Track Elephant Poachers

Ivory poaching is surging out of control in Africa, a new study says. But scientists say they've found a way to use DNA "fingerprints" to track down the poachers.

The study, which currently appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says well-armed gangs of poachers have been killing elephants by the thousands. Black-market sales of elephant tusks were relatively rare five years ago but are now at an all-time high.

Poachers do horrific things to elephants, says Richard Ruggerio, an elephant expert with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He once found a baby elephant standing next to the mutilated carcass of its mother.


"[The] baby elephant refuse[d] to leave its mother even though she's decomposing and the vultures are on her," Ruggiero says. "The baby elephant is there sometimes trying to nurse from a decomposed carcass."

Such scenes were commonplace in Africa before the global ban on ivory took effect in 1990. After the ban, the poachers disappeared for many years. Now they're back.

Samuel Wasser, co-author of the study and an ivory expert at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, says it is possible that 240 tons of ivory were smuggled out of Africa in 2006 alone.

He estimates that 240 tons of ivory translates to approximately 24,000 killed elephants. He says much of the ivory looks fresh, which indicates the elephants were killed within the last year.

One key difference between the last ivory poaching crisis and this one, Wasser explains, is that this time it is unclear where the poaching hot spots are. Poachers are now working inside forests where they are hard to find, and some countries with bad poaching problems have learned to look the other way.


DNA Detectives

To catch up with the poachers, scientists are now using DNA fingerprints to trace stolen tusks back to the spots where they were poached. The seized ivory is pulverized into a fine powder from which a DNA sample is extracted.

Wasser tries to match the DNA from the ivory tusk with DNA collected from wild elephants. When he finds a match, it gives him a clue as to where the elephant was killed.

The first big test of Wasser's system took place in the port of Singapore in 2005. Acting on a tip, customs agents opened a set of shipping crates and found a stunningly large cache of stolen ivory.

"Six and a half tons of ivory," Wasser says. "It was the largest seizure since the ban and actually the largest ever in history."

Wasser says it is possible that 6,000 elephants were killed to fill the seized crates. But smuggling experts couldn't [track] down the site of the mass slaughter. The crates had come from Zambia but Zambian officials swore that poaching was extremely rare inside their borders. They claimed that only 135 elephants had been killed in their borders in the last 10 years, Wasser says.

Wasser traced the DNA fingerprints of those tusks and proved the Zambian officials wrong.

"We can actually pinpoint based on the combinations of genes falling together," Wasser says, "where the ivory came from, and that turned out to be Zambia."

The chief of the Zambian wildlife department was so embarrassed by Wasser's findings that he quit his job. Wasser's work has not yet led to arrests, but there are signs that it is forcing some big changes.

Several countries are now getting tough on ivory poachers, says a co-author of the paper, smuggling expert William Clark of Interpol. One of the most recent busts took place in Zambia, where an Asian businessman was caught buying tusks.

"He pleaded guilty and he was sentenced to five years hard labor," Clark says. "That's a serious punishment for someone from an industrialized Asian country — going to a Zambian prison."

Zeroing In

With hopes of further arrests, Wasser is now attempting to trace bits of ivory from half a dozen major seizures. He hopes to help anti-poaching teams zero in on other killing zones.

Poaching remains an attractive endeavor: The price of an average pair of tusks has been driven up beyond $7,000; an average poacher couldn't make that much in an entire year at a legal job.

Wasser says the elephants will not be saved until authorities in Asia, Europe and the United States crack down on ivory buyers who fuel the demand for the illegal products.

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