Tuesday, August 7, 2012

New Forensic Tools to Catch Ivory Poachers

A pair of captive elephants

Scientists have recently announced that ivory poachers can be tracked down by the use of new forensic tools which can locate exactly where the illegal ivory is from using DNA. The poaching of elephants continues and remains a serious issue, with seizures of large amounts of ivory still going on. But now, researchers have found a way to identify where the ivory comes from after evaluating elephants at 22 locations in thirteen African countries to get their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences. According to scientists, mtDNA is a good indicator for determining the origin of ivory since it is only sent by female elephants and they do not migrate between herds. As part of the test, Washington State professor Nicholas Georgiadis shot an elephant with a biopsy dart which would hit the animal's side and scrape off a small piece before falling off. Professor Alfred Roca of Urbana University described the dart "like a biting insect." Researchers collected 653 samples which were sequenced and analyzed, and found categorical subdivisions of the mtDNA out of which seven had geographical distribution. They also recognized 108 unique mtDNA sequences that gave information about the origin of the ivory, in which 72 percent were found in one locality and 82 percent were country-specific. The test revealed that even though many elephants can have the same sequence, 44 percent of the individuals carried a sequence seen only at their sampling location. It was found that nuclear markers categorized between bush and forest elephants, while the mtDNA marker showed an exact location, so the plan would be to combine both the markers together. A study titled The Evolutionary Applications stated that the research should be used by conservationists to analyze the origin of confiscated ivory.

I'm very much impressed that technology is being used in an effort to combat poaching. In this case, it is by locating where illegally smuggled ivory is coming from by using DNA. Normally, anti-poaching efforts include seizures of wildlife products being illegally smuggled overseas or across borders. But now, with the help of newly advanced forensic technology, conservationists and wildlife officials should have a better chance of tracing the origins of such illicit merchandise. This would then lead them directly to poachers behind the killing(s) of elephants. I think the use of DNA would be an effective tool in targeting ivory poachers in Africa and Asia, and hopefully it would also be used in the case of other endangered species. Furthermore, I believe this tactic combined with community outreach and education about elephants and other endangered species would further help in the battle against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

View article here

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