Magazine article Newsweek

DNA Sleuthing Reveals Elephant Poaching Hot Spots; Analysis of Seized Tusks Helps Scientists Track Illegal Hunting to Two Key Areas of Africa

Magazine article Newsweek

DNA Sleuthing Reveals Elephant Poaching Hot Spots; Analysis of Seized Tusks Helps Scientists Track Illegal Hunting to Two Key Areas of Africa

Article excerpt

Byline: Douglas Main

African elephants are in trouble. Poachers kill about 50,000 of the animals every year for their tusks, which are fashioned into ivory trinkets that collectively fetch several billion dollars. This greatly imperils the future of the world's largest land mammal. Only around 430,000 are left, and around 10 percent are killed off annually.

But policing is tough. How do you protect an animal found across enormous expanses of land in sub-Saharan Africa?

New research shows that the task may not be as overwhelming as it sounds. Sam Wasser from the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and colleagues examined DNA from tusks seized by customs officials around the world from 1996 to 2014. They then matched those with a map of elephant genes, which they constructed by taking 1,500 DNA samples from elephants across 29 African countries.

This allowed them to determine where the seized ivory came from, as they describe in a study published June 18 in the journal Science. To their surprise, they found that poaching appears to be concentrated in two areas. For forest elephants, poaching is centered on the so-called TRIDOM (Tri-National Dja-Odzala-Minkebe) protected ecosystem, which spans northeast Gabon, northwest Democratic Republic of Congo and southeast Cameroon, Wasser says. For savannah elephants, which live on the eastern and southern plains of Africa, Tanzania is the primary hot spot for poaching and the more important of the two, he adds. …

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