DNA detective work exposes elephant poachers

INVESTIGATORS who collected DNA from the tusks of slain elephants and painstakingly looked for matches in the vast African continent have identified two large areas where the slaughter has been occurring on an industrial scale, according to a study.

Investigators collected DNA from the tusks of slain elephant. Picture: AP

The two areas are Tanzania in the east and a cross-border region encompassing several 
nations in the central-western part of Africa.

Samuel Wasser, an author of the study published in the journal Science, said he hopes the study will focus law-enforcement efforts and increase international pressure on host countries to crack down on poaching, but he acknowledged the 

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“You’re literally asking them to police themselves,” Wasser said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. He suggested donor countries could demand more robust conservation efforts in exchange for development aid.

The big size of shipments of confiscated ivory from both regions – over half a ton – indicates the presence of transnational crime syndicates likely operating with corrupt authorities, said researchers who matched DNA from seized tusks to samples of elephant hair, tissue and dung from wildlife parks across Africa.

Wasser, director of the Centre for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, in the United States, described the two areas that the study identified as “major hotspots” where elephant poaching far surpasses the scale of the killing for profit elsewhere.

Elephant populations in both areas were already known to be under siege by poachers who have killed tens of thousands annually in recent years to meet rising demand for ivory in Asia, particularly China.

An average of at least several dozen tons of ivory is seized each year, roughly 10 per cent of the total amount of ivory that is poached annually, said authors of the new study.

On Thursday, authorities in Bangkok announced that raids by multiple law-enforcement agencies across Asia, Africa and Europe resulted in more than 300 arrests and over 600 seizures of assorted wildlife contraband, including more than 12 tons of ivory, as well as rhino horns, whale ribs and seahorses.

In New York City on Friday, a ton of confiscated ivory will be crushed in Times Square to draw attention to wildlife trafficking.

The poaching situation in Tanzania was already illustrated by a recent census, part of a continent-wide effort to count elephants. The result revealed a 
60 per cent decline to an estimated 43,330 elephants in Tanzania since a 2009 census, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Tanzania’s minister for natural resources and tourism, Lazaro Nyalandu, has said the country has taken anti-poaching steps, including the hiring of 500 additional rangers, the establishment of an elephant orphanage and an appeal for more help from conservation groups.