Scientists have used a revolutionary genetic technique to pinpoint the area of Africa where smugglers are slaughtering elephants to feed the worldwide illegal ivory trade.
Using a DNA map of Africa’s elephants, they have found that most recent seizures of tusks can be traced to animals that had grazed in the Selous and Niassa game reserves on the Tanzania and Mozambique borders.
The discovery suggests that only a handful of cartels are responsible for most of the world’s booming trade in illegal ivory and for the annual slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants. The extent of this trade is revealed through recent seizures of thousands of tusks in separate raids on docks in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. These were aimed at satisfying the far east’s growing appetite for ivory, a new status symbol for the middle classes of the region’s swelling industrialised economies.
As a result, ivory prices have soared from $200 a kilogram in 2004 to more than $6 000. At the same time, scientists estimate that between 8% and 10% of Africa’s elephants are now being slaughtered each year to meet demand.
“In the past, law enforcement agencies—including Interpol—thought these shipments of ivory had been put together by traders cherry-picking small stockpiles across Africa,” said Professor Sam Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Centre for Conservation Biology, where the DNA elephant map was developed.
“Our work shows that isn’t true. The vast majority of poaching is being carried out by a few big organisations—possibly one or two major syndicates—that are targeting one area and then hammering its elephants. It is grim, but it also suggests we can target our anti-poaching efforts very specifically by focussing efforts on these regions.” More....