Elephant DNA analysis - combating the trade in illegal ivory
In the last five years, the price of ivory has rocketed with reports of Asian dealers paying in excess of US$1,000 per kilo for the tip of the tusk alone. Elephant poaching for ivory and bushmeat in the Democratic Republic of Congo remains extreme, and the illegal smuggling of ivory is coming through Uganda headed for China and Thailand. Elephants are once again in danger of being wiped out.
The dramatic rise in the illegal trade in African elephant ivory has been marked by a tripling in the volume of ivory seized by law enforcement agencies (Traffic / INTERPOL). Containers with false compartments have been seized with tonnes of ivory concealed inside. But how do we know where it has come from – where was the poaching?
The percentage of remaining elephants being killed now may, in fact, be at its highest in history, representing 8% of the 470,000 elephants remaining in Africa (IUCN 2006), a percentage even higher than that leading up to the 1989 ivory ban when the population was 2-3 times its present size. Poaching in Kenya has risen alarmingly over the past two years.
Little actionable information has been available on the supply side, even though this may be the most effective place to contain this illegal trade. It is where the elephants are being killed and before the ivory enters into a complex web of criminal activity that needs to be identified. Globalization of free trade, coupled with the large and increasing number of containers shipped around the world and the limited capacity of authorities to search them, is increasing the difficulties of policing this trade. China, where most of the ivory ends up, also has a growing ability for ivory extraction across Africa as it aggressively expands its mineral exploitation rights across Africa.
Wherever ivory is seized or on sale, its DNA genetic profile provides the ‘finger print’ of its true origin. By applying DNA analysis technology, Professor Sam Wasser and his team at the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology have developed the first method to track the origin of these large ivory seizures, evidence which can be used in court.
This project is a ‘one-off’ and UCF is assisting the University of Washington by collecting samples from elephant populations across Uganda. In time our reach will also cover regions of Southern Sudan and Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, UCF is attempting to visit every elephant habitat across Uganda and take samples of elephant dung to help provide a DNA profile of elephants from this region of Africa. Once completed the profile provides an evidence base to identify the origin of ivory and indeed, the possible smuggling routes. Equipped with this knowledge, law enforcement agencies can focus on activities to combat the trade at its original source.
- Identify countries that are major sources of poached ivory; these countries are often different from where the ivory is shipped and thus untraceable by most other methods.
- Direct law enforcement authorities to these poaching ‘hot spots’, as well as provide the bases to guide and pressure these countries to police more effectively their illegal trade.
- Educate the international public and wildlife authorities about the need to increase support for combating illegal trade in hugely under resourced regions.
- It will be possible - internationally - for convictions and political pressure to be made, based on evidence.
- We will understand the genetic profile of elephants across Uganda for the first time.
The work is part of a collaborative, aggressive campaign to thwart the illegal ivory trade over the next five years and is aimed at maximizing the amount and flow of information available to national and international law enforcement authorities. UCF believes that this approach offers the greatest hope of stopping the illegal ivory trade at its source, before the elephant are actually killed.
Phases 1 and 2 of this project have been completed and focused on the easily accessible and large elephant populations in the major national parks of Uganda.
Further financial support is sought to complete the last and third phase, which will involve collecting samples from the more remote and transboundary populations (Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan). These populations are mostly unknown and are in largely inaccessible areas, so this work will also provide critical updates about the elephants’ welfare for the African Elephant Database. Furthermore the DNA will provide a genetic profile that can be used to consider the biogeography of the region and potential hybridization of the Savanna and Forest elephants.
This project is extremely important, especially as the vast majority of ivory is thought to come from the DRC and smuggled through Uganda. Alarmingly, across this region of Africa many of the elephant populations receive no international support at all, in terms of policing or research, leaving all wildlife completely exposed to poaching. In carrying out this project, UCF will also be determining whether elephants and other wildlife still remain in the least accessible Protected Areas and forest reserves.
Uganda remains highly vulnerable to poaching and ivory smuggling, and it is critical to help increase the capacity to govern the illegal trade for the Forest and Savanna elephants.
Grants towards this work have been received from Seaworld Busch, Born Free, Disney and Rufford.
UCF is proud to be associated with such a high profile initiative.
In the press
Click here to read one of many articles referencing this project.