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Scientists have extracted elephant DNA from illegal ivory shipments to identify poaching hotspots in Central and East Africa, according to a study published last week.

In a paper published in Science on 18 June, a team of researchers led by biologist Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington, United States, matched the DNA from tusks to different populations of forest and savannah elephants to trace ivory seized from international poaching gangs back to its source.

They found that the majority of the 28 major tusk seizures made between 2006 and 2014 came from two areas: a nature reserve encompassing northeast Gabon, northwest Congo and southeast Cameroon, and a savannah region on the border of Tanzania and Mozambique.

Elephant-reserves poaching hotspots.jpg

“These are seizures that weigh a minimum of a half tonne and are worth upwards of a million dollars or more,” Wasser tells SciDev.Net. “We really wanted to find out where the large transnational organised crime syndicates were operating.”

Although it was known that much illegal ivory came from these countries, Wasser says he was surprised that elephant poaching is heavily concentrated in just two places: the Dja-Odzala-Mikébe protected zone in Central Africa and the Selous and Nyasa game reserves in East Africa.

“Virtually 100 per cent of the seizures came from those two areas,” Wasser says.

“We really wanted to find out where the large transnational organised crime syndicates were operating.”

Samuel Wasser, University of Washington 

Elephant poaching poses a serious threat to the species, with an estimated 50,000 African elephants killed each year from a population of fewer than 500,000 animals

To tackle elephant poaching, the study suggests that support should be targeted at park rangers in the hotspots, who are the main defence against poachers. But this is difficult as the countries where poaching is rife are among the poorest in the world, and many suffer from ongoing conflict.

“The rangers are critical. They need the support of their governments to really do the right thing,” Wasser says. “Unfortunately, lots of the time they need the support of the outside world, too.”

Raabia Hawa, the director of Ulinzi Africa Foundation’s Walk with Rangers programme, which aims to highlight the difficulties rangers face, says it has traditionally been difficult to pinpoint where poached elephants are originally from, because they roam widely.

“From my knowledge, elephants have no borders,” Hawa says. She adds that this is why it is important to tackle elephant poaching at an interregional level and not just to see it as a national issue.“It’s great to invest in a science-based approach,” Hawa says, but she adds that communities as well as park rangers should be involved in anti-poaching efforts, to ensure they support law enforcement efforts in and around local parks.