Washington, August 21 : A new study has determined that extracting elephant DNA from confiscated ivory could be an important tool to help wildlife investigations stop elephant poaching at its source.
According to a report in ENN (Environmental News Network), such expensive forensic work may become necessary to protect dwindling elephant populations and curb the illegal ivory market before it grows completely out of control.
"In big seizures, there's a very strong tendency to ship ivory out of a different country than where it's poached. It's a bit of a red herring," said Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology and the lead author of the study.
"The methods we developed are very important in that regard because it focuses where the poaching is ongoing," he added.
Wasser's team tested ivory from the Hong Kong sting and from a 6.5 ton ivory seizure in Singapore in 2002.
After analyzing the samples' genes and comparing them against a complex elephant DNA map that covers much of Africa, the researchers were able to trace the Hong Kong samples to elephant populations in Gabon.
The Singapore samples were linked to populations in southern Africa, mostly in Zambia.
Although some DNA source locations were scattered, the findings point to much more specific origins of illegal poaching than were previously available.
The findings also contradict previous assumptions that ivory dealers would purchase tusks from throughout Africa as they become available.
Instead, Wasser's study paper suggests that "crime syndicates were targeting specific populations for intense exploitation, hitting them hard and fast to satisfy the demands of a particular consignment."
After it was revealed that most of the ivory seized in Singapore came from elephants in Zambia, that country's director of wildlife was replaced and its courts began to impose harsher sentences for ivory smugglers.
"At the time of the analyses, authorities thought the ivory came from Tanzania and/or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our analyses refocused the investigation, allowed authorities to point the finger at Zambia and get them to do something," said Wasser.
Wasser's team estimates that elephants in sub-Saharan Africa could be "virtually extinct" across their range by 2020.