From: Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press
Published February 27, 2007 12:00 AM

DNA From Ivory May Lead to Poachers

WASHINGTON -- The complex science of DNA analysis is now helping protect elephants by showing police and conservationists the source of black-market ivory.


The price of ivory has nearly quadrupled in recent years, prompting poachers to kill more elephants to sell their tusks illegally.


Protecting the giant beasts is complicated by the fact they spread across large parts of Africa and authorities are unsure where the illegal hunting is occurring.


But the seizure of more than six tons of ivory in Singapore in 2002 has helped solve part of that puzzle, according to a report by Samuel K. Wasser of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Wasser and colleagues took samples of the confiscated ivory and compared it with baseline DNA collected from elephants across the continent over several years. DNA is the internal blueprint for life that carries the genes that develop into each individual.


The comparison showed that the tusks seized from the black market came from elephants on Africa's broad savannas, primarily from a small area of southern Africa, most likely centered on Zambia, the researchers said.


Authorities had suspected the confiscated ivory had multiple origins, the researchers said, but "our results caused law enforcement to substantially narrow the area of origin and the trade routes being investigated."


The research was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, African Elephant Conservation Fund, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Center for Conservation Biology.


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