As Elephant Poaching Rises, DNA Analysis May Be Critical for Conservation

Elephant poaching in Africa has increased dramatically in recent years as enforcement of the global ivory ban weakens.

Over the past year, unprecedented numbers of African elephants have been slaughtered for their ivory tusks, the Washington Post reported recently. Between August 2005 and August 2006, authorities worldwide seized more than 24 tons of smuggled elephant ivory being shipped to the Far East alone, though actual poaching levels were probably much higher, according to Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. In a new study, Wasser and his colleagues note that because customs agents typically detect only about 10 percent of all contraband, the real figure may have topped 240 tons of ivory, representing 23,000 elephants or roughly 5 percent of Africa’s total elephant population.

Analysts attribute the rising death toll to weak enforcement of the worldwide ban on international ivory sales, adopted in 1989 under the auspices of the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In its early years, the ban was largely effective due to heightened public attention to the ivory trade and government funding for anti-poaching efforts. Elephant populations rebounded substantially, especially in southern Africa. But in recent years, as exceptions to the ban have increased and funding has dried up, the illegal killings have resumed.

Ivory markets diminished considerably in the United States and Europe following passage of the ban, but the demand for ivory jewelry and other products remains high in East Asia, with the price of one kilogram of high-quality ivory on the Chinese black market skyrocketing from US$100 in 1989 to US$750 in 2006. According to the Washington Post, organized crime has contributed to the problem, as narcotics and other contraband are often shipped alongside the tusks, raising the stakes and incentives for poachers.

Wasser's team used DNA analysis to determine the origins of a 6.5-ton illegal ivory shipment (representing 3,000–6,500 poached elephants) confiscated in Singapore in 2002. By examining the tusks and taking random DNA samples to track genetic differences, they were able to prove that the ivory came from a small area in and around Zambia, and not from a variety of locations as was initially assumed. This ability to pinpoint the origin of confiscated ivory is considered critical to future elephant conservation efforts.

According to Wasser, a well-funded anti-poaching program that includes DNA analysis has the potential to dramatically curb illegal killings and related criminal activity, thus preventing ivory from reaching the international market. The World Wildlife Fund reports that conservation efforts are also focusing on “controlling ivory stockpiles, establishing and strengthening the borders of protected areas, preventing poaching, and carefully managing elephants to avoid increased conflict with human populations.” Greater outreach to East Asian consumers through campaigns similar to those seeking to stem demand for shark-fin soup is also considered essential for successful elephant conservation.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.