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DNA Technology Leads Scientists to Locations of Elephant Poaching

The illegal trade in elephant ivory continues unabated despite the fact that it was banned by international convention in 1989. In an effort to hunt down poachers who slaughter thousands of elephants a year for the animals' tusks, scientists have turned to DNA technology to narrow the search. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Between 2005 and 2006, experts say there were 12 major seizures of African elephant ivory. Asia is the biggest market for illegal ivory.

The amount of ivory is estimated to have come from thousands African elephants, whose bodies, according to Peter Peuschel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, were left mangled in the forest. "If you see not one, but 10, 20, 40 or even more elephants in a small area being killed and all their tusks are ripped out of their heads, this is a very shocking picture," he said.

In 2002, authorities in Singapore confiscated a record $6 million in ivory. Wildlife authorities believed the poaching occurred in a widely dispersed area.

But to pinpoint the precise origin of the tusks can tell authorities where elephants are being slaughtered and which routes are being used to transport the illegal tusks. Armed with this information, the enforcement authorities would find it easier to track down poachers.

"It tells us whether or not did all this ivory really come from the country it was originally shipped from, which was Zambia, or did it come from many different countries. And if it came from many different countries, than that starts to tell us things like ivory that has been stockpiled in other places is being essentially pulled together and shipped out in several key locations," explained Samuel Wasser, who is with the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Wasser led a group of researchers who performed a DNA analysis on 67 tusks confiscated in the 2002 Singapore seizure.

The genetic material was compared to an existing database of elephant DNA. The researchers determined with near "100 percent accuracy" that the poached elephants came from the savanna within a narrow band of Southern Africa -- possibly extending from Mozambique to Angola -- with Zambia at its center.

The findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To the extent that the illegal ivory trade has reached such a global scale, the authors say the best way to combat the crime is to keep the ivory at its source, and DNA technology can make a major contribution toward that effort.