Illegal wildlife trade is one of the largest transnational organized crime trades in the world.
"Right now, we estimate, there are 50,000 elephants a year being killed by poachers, and there's less than 470,000 elephants left in Africa," Samuel Wasser, a University of Washington biologist, told IFLScience.
In an effort to help change the way elephant poaching is tackled, Wasser used DNA evidence to trace the source of illegal ivory to two main poaching hotspots in Africa. These hotspots are in East Africa and the central African Tridom. More than 85% of the forest and savanna elephant ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 was found to originate from these two regions of Africa.
"We've been doing this work for quite a long time now and started to see these patterns of repeat offenders: the same countries showing up over and over in the seizures," Wasser said. "That doesn't mean that poaching isn't occurring everywhere, it is. But it means that the areas that have the biggest national organized crime syndicates operating are really focused primarily in these two places."
Seized ivory slated for destruction in the crush. USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr. CC BY 2.0.
Wasser began by creating a gene map of the genetic variation of the elephants all over Africa. There are genetic differences in the elephant populations since they have been separated over space and time. The idea was to sample the genes present in the poached ivory and match those genes to their source in Africa.
"We genotype the ivory for the same 16 genetic markers and then we are able to statistically match it to map where the ivory comes from," said Wasser.
How do you make an elephant gene map, you ask? "We collected DNA samples using dung," Wasser explains.
How well did the dung map work? Wasser did control tests of ivory from a known source to check how accurate the gene map was. The results were startlingly precise.
The ivory origins were accurate "within 300 kilometers [186 miles] and, in many cases, closer. Which means that we have the precision to be able to say where these hotspots really are." When you consider that Africa is 30,000,000 square kilometers [11,600,000 square miles] in area, this is an impressive figure.
So far, one of the main focuses in the prevention of illegal elephant ivory poaching has been to stop the demand in the countries where it's sold. "But one of the big problems is that that is just too slow given the rates of elephants that are being killed now in Africa," said Wasser. "And we need to do that over the long term, but we need a more urgent solution which is focused on stopping the killing."
With this new evidence in hand, hopefully we can "choke the flow of ivory into these massive criminal networks that allow this transnational organized crime to operate."
Stopping one source might lead to more springing up elsewhere, but Wasser doesn't think this is a reason not to intervene at these hotspot sites. "If we are able to take out these two major hotspots, then it's possible that it will start to shift to another country. But it can only happen slowly because you've got to get the infrastructure built up to move the ivory out."
You can see more in the complementary video released by the University of Washington.
The science of saving the elephants. UWcas.
If that's made you sad, then here's a video of baby elephants to warm your heart.
96 seconds of baby elephants. National Geographic