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Planet Earth

Could DNA Tell Us Where Smugglers Get Their Ivory?

DiscoblogBy Andrew MosemanAugust 6, 2008 7:06 PM

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african-elephants425.jpg

It's nice when police catch intercept ivory smugglers trying to import their product into another country. But often their efforts don't get authorities any closer to stopping hunters from killing elephants in the first place. Thanks to a new approach crafted by Samuel Wasser at the University of Washington, however, the smugglers' ivory may tell police all they need to know. Wasser and his team have begun analyzing DNA samples from seized ivory and connecting those samples to elephant populations in the wild. After collecting tissue samples from across the African continent, he figured out that ivory seized in Singapore in 2002 had come from the savannas of Zambia in Southern Africa. In another example, a load of ivory found in Hong Kong in 2006 originated in the West African forests near Gabon. If authorities know where the ivory comes from, Wasser hopes, they know where to watch for poachers, so maybe these easy elephant hunting grounds won't be quite so easy anymore. It'll take this kind of dramatic action, Wasser says, for elephants to survive any more than another decade.

Image: flickr/JeffChristiansen

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