The Elephants' Telltale Tusks: DNA Trail May Help Track Poachers

Article excerpt

DNA trail may help track poachers

A technology used to help identify criminals and solve paternity cases may also soon track down ivory poachers who are killing elephants for their tusks.

By developing a DNA-fingerprint database of elephant tusks, biologist John C. Patton of Washington University in St. Louis hopes to help pinpoint the types of elephants from which confiscated tusks are obtained as well as the exact location in Africa of those elephant types. This may eventually enable authorities to trace illegally traded ivory back to where the elephants were actually slaughtered.

Patton will isolate samples of DNA from confiscated tusks, as well as samples from live elephants in African and American zoos. Using genetic fingerprinting- techniques that reveal genetic variation among elephants from regions of Africa, Patton will produce codes of the tiny portion of DNA that makes an individual unique. His database of individual DNA fingerprints will provide a genetic profile of tusk types that is accurate enough not only to show what type of elephant produced the tusk (e.g., savanna, forest, or a hybrid), but even the region where that elephant could be found.

Most African countries set quotas on tusk exports or ban elephant hunting entirely, but poachers can get around these rules, often by finding officials willing to falsify papers, Patton points out. "Some countries become conduits for poached ivory," he says. "They may export more tusks per year than they have elephants.... The paper trail is dirty.... We're just trying to make it easier to say where the elephants come from so authorities can backtrack and find out where the illegal ivory is coming from. …