"Illegal hunting is a major threat to the elephants of Africa, with more elephants killed by poachers than die from natural causes."
That is the first line of a paper published in the Journal of Heredity.
Such a statistic serves as a reminder that Earth’s resources and its creatures are not inexhaustible. The effort to save our planet’s elephants has taken many forms, including AI, patrols on the ground, and DNA from tusks.
Now, more researchers have joined the action against poaching with the creation of an interactive software tool that uses mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences to help uncover the provenance of confiscated ivory. The tool, called Loxodonta Localizer, can determine the possible origin within six days of receiving the sample and with a high degree of accuracy – a faster and cheaper option than independent analysis.
"The software has a number of aspects that improve upon previous means of inferring the provenance of ivory," study author Alfred Roca, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told IFLScience.
"My colleagues waited several years for ivory to be genotyped for microsatellites (nuclear DNA) outside their country. Whereas for mtDNA, they had their own results available within-country in a week.
"For nuclear DNA, because of platform issues (results across labs are difficult to compare), all of the ivory had to be shipped to a single laboratory. This leads to regulatory difficulties, and is difficult also logistically."
The software stores the genetic information of previously poached ivory and compares this to the recent haul. This works because mtDNA is only passed from females to their offspring, and female elephants do not leave the main herd, only the males do at puberty. The herd with the females tends to stay within the same general locality, making pinpointing region of origin that much more precise.
"The mtDNA is a single sequence that can be generated by any laboratory around the world, thus the process is simpler, quicker, and open to a lot more laboratories anywhere in the world."
"It takes about six days from the time the laboratory gets the ivory samples to the time they have an estimate of where in Africa the ivory is likely to be from. The process involves dissolving the bone so that DNA can be extracted, amplification of the target DNA region using PCR, sequencing of the PCR results, trimming the sequences to the current length for query against the LL. Once the query is entered, the program generates the results in just a few seconds."
The team compared the accuracy of the tool with ivory that had already been independently analyzed based on nuclear DNA markers. The techniques agreed upon the provenance, with the Loxodonta Localizer being faster, cheaper, and possibly even more precise.
"One quite positive aspect of the mtDNA approach is that scientists within the range countries can use samples of elephant dung to conduct sequencing of their own populations of elephants. There are no platform issues, so their results can be added to the Loxodonta Localizer after laboratories across Africa have published their own research," said Roca. "Scientists in transit and destination countries can extract and sequence DNA locally from any tusks confiscated within-country. This enables local laboratories to conduct their own forensics work without relying on the shipment of elephant or ivory samples outside their own countries."
The team say the rapid assessment of where the seized ivory is from is key to helping law enforcement agencies and colleagues tackle the illegal trade.
The poaching of elephants for their ivory is a notorious threat to populations in Africa. Between 2008 and 2016, the overall weight of the illegal trade in ivory tripled, according to CITES. In 2016 alone, there were 22 large-scale seizures of ivory weighing more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).
For the tool to be even more useful, the team need data. And that means having researchers in Africa who work with elephants to add genetic sequences to the database.
At the moment, about one out of every 200 elephants in Africa is sequenced in the database. The team say they need more samples from more locations to make it even more exact.