Sunday, June 21, 2015

Elephant Ivory DNA to Help Authorities Hunt Down Poachers

A KWS security officer near a burning pile of 15 tons of ivory confiscated in Kenya.

A team of researchers from the University of Washington and Interpol have recently discovered through genetic proof that an astonishing part of the illegally hunted ivory was taken from only two comparatively small regions in Africa. They analyzed 1,500 DNA samples from the tusks found in 28 large ivory shipments confiscated by law enforcement officials in Africa and Asia between 2006 and 2014. Nearly all of the ivory matched elephant populations in and around Central and East Africa, indicating that most of the animals were killed in national parks, game reserves, and other areas that are created to protect wildlife. According to Sam Wasser, one of the researchers who conducted the study, the confiscations account for 70 percent of all ivory taken by law enforcement making them useful for understanding the trade as a whole. He further added that researchers know if poachers will move to a new location now that the results have been issued. A large confiscation is known to weigh about half a ton and normally worth at least $1 million or more. One of the study's co-authors and an officer with Interpol, Bill Clark, pointed out that the illegal ivory trade is a "criminal enterprise" complete with supply and demand, framework, transport of shipments, expediting, factories, and mediators. He also added that all components of any significant asset is found in the ivory industry, including banking. That is, money is known to be laundered through banks. It is hoped that the information will help African governments and international organizations direct their attention to protecting the elephants.
Elephant family with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background.

The illegal ivory trade has and is continuing to wreak havoc on the world's population of elephants. In addition to being a major ecological problem, it is also an economic problem and a threat to national security. Africa's elephants are known to be one of the prime attractions for tourists coming to the continent to view its incredible wildlife. With tourism comes foreign income which benefits Africa's socio-economic development. But as elephants and other wild animals fall victim to poaching, the tourism industry in Africa becomes heavily affected and could not benefit from international income as the numbers of tourists start to deplete. Researchers indicated that Central Africa has lost 95 percent of its elephant population to poaching. This not only means that the region's tourism industry is badly affected, but also its socio-economic growth with more and more people being pushed into living in dire poverty. The same situation is seen in Tanzania which has lost 10,000 elephants to poaching prompting organizations like the African Wildlife Foundation and WildAid to establish an anti-poaching campaign with the country's government. It is highly crucial that majority of African countries and other countries need to take serious action to stem the trade of illegal ivory. This not just means banning or restricting the sale of ivory, but more urgent measurements need to be implemented to suppress the supply of illegal ivory. Elephants are known to function as a keystone species in the overall health of Africa's forests and other habitats, which in turn provide resources for a region and oxygen for the planet. Hopefully, this research will help law enforcement agencies track down poachers and be one step ahead in the battle against the illegal ivory trade.

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