A new tool for taking on elephant poaching: DNA forensics

Jeremy Hance
August 08, 2012

Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

One of the difficulties plaguing law enforcement and authorities when it comes to tackling elephant poaching is determining where the ivory originates. Now, research published in the journal Evolutionary Applications, has found a new way of tracking ivory back to wild elephants populations: forensic genetic studies.

Looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), scientists have been able to divide Africa's wide-ranging elephant population into eight distinct groups. This has allowed them to determine the country of origin for ivory 62 percent of the time, and in some cases up to 84 percent.

Scientists focused on the elephants' mtDNA, since this is transmitted only be females, which generally don't move far from their birthplace as opposed to males.

Once governments have a better idea just where elephants are being poached, "then steps can be taken by that particular country to prevent the poaching," says co-author Alfred Roca with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a press release.

According to the UN, elephant poaching has hit its highest point since 1989, decimating populations across the continent. African elephants are currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red Lists. Recent research has shown that there is likely two species of African elephant: the bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), with the latter far more imperiled.

CITATION: Yasuko Ishida, Nicholas J. Georgiadis, Tomoko Hondo, Alfred L. Roca. Triangulating the provenance of African elephants using mitochondrial DNA. Evolutionary Applications, 2012, DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-4571.2012.00286.x

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (August 08, 2012).

A new tool for taking on elephant poaching: DNA forensics.