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New Findings Pinpoint Africa’s Elephant Poaching Hotspots

Elephant poaching in Africa, driven by the illegal ivory trade, has reached its highest level in decades, threatening some populations with extinction. But recent findings published in the journal Science suggest a new way forward for conservationists, law enforcement, and policymakers: the use of genetic science to pinpoint the illegal trade at its points of origin.

Picture taken on December 30, 2012 shows elephants calves playing at the Amboseli game reserve, approximately 250 kilometres south of Nairobi. Drawing to its close today, this year 2012, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, stands out as the ''annus horriblis'' (Latin for 'year of horrors') for the World's largest land mammal with statistics standing at 34 tonnes of poached ivory having been seized, marking the biggest ever total of confiscated ivory in a single year, outstripping by almost 40 per cent last year?s record of 24.3 tonnes. Earlier this year, in just six weeks, between January and March 2012, at least 50 per cent of the elephants in Cameroon?s Bouba Ndjida National Park were slaughtered for their ivory by horseback bandits. Most illegal ivory is destined for Asia, in particular China, where it has soared in value as an investment vehicle and coveted as ?white gold.? AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA        (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture taken on December 30, 2012 shows elephants calves playing at the Amboseli game reserve, approximately 250 kilometres south of Nairobi. Drawing to its close today, this year 2012, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, stands out as the ''annus horriblis'' (Latin for 'year of horrors') for the World's largest land mammal with statistics standing at 34 tonnes of poached ivory having been seized, marking the biggest ever total of confiscated ivory in a single year, outstripping by almost 40 per cent last year?s record of 24.3 tonnes. Earlier this year, in just six weeks, between January and March 2012, at least 50 per cent of the elephants in Cameroon?s Bouba Ndjida National Park were slaughtered for their ivory by horseback bandits. Most illegal ivory is destined for Asia, in particular China, where it has soared in value as an investment vehicle and coveted as ?white gold.? AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

At a demonstration earlier this month in New York’s Times Square, conservationists, politicians, and the usual swarm of tourists looked on as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials destroyed more than a ton of confiscated elephant ivory with an industrial rock crusher. “Today, we are not just crushing illegally poached ivory; we are crushing the bloody ivory market,” Cristian Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, told CNN last Friday. “We are crushing any hopes by the poachers that they will profit by killing off our Earth’s majestic elephants.”

Elephant poaching in Africa, driven by the illegal ivory trade, has reached its highest level in decades, threatening some populations with extinction. But recent findings published in the journal Science suggest a new way forward for conservationists, law enforcement, and policymakers: the use of genetic science to pinpoint the illegal trade at its points of origin.

When officials seize illegal ivory, usually at ports in Asia, where the demand is high, they have trouble tracing it back beyond ports in Africa, which often aren’t even in the same country where the ivory was obtained. Scientists have found a way to overcome that obstacle. Researchers collected DNA samples from elephants across the African continent and from ivory seized across the globe, and thereby were able to assign geographic origin to 28 large batches confiscated between 1996 and 2014, weighing more than half a ton. The findings were unexpected. Almost all the ivory seized came from two hotspots in Africa: a region including parts of Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic; and a region including two game reserves in Tanzania and Mozambique.

In recent years, poachers have grown quite bold. Illegal hunters with automatic weapons gunned down hundreds of elephants in Bouba Ndjidah National Park in Cameroon in 2012, and poachers in Zimbabwe poisoned some 300 elephants and a slew of other animals with cyanide in 2013.

“I expected to find that the number of hotspots were fewer than people thought, but never dreamed there would be as few as we found,” Professor Samuel Wasser, a biology researcher at the University of Washington and lead author of the paper, told Foreign Policy. “It suggests that corruption is a big factor here. It is highly unlikely that a country could move that much ivory across their borders for decade without high level corruption. The results of this study will make it more difficult for these source countries to continue to deny the extent of their involvement in the trade and hopefully cause the international community to hold these source countries accountable if they hope to receive additional aid.”

William Muir, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue University’s College of Agriculture, confirmed that the findings would have policy implications. “It is very significant as it allows concentration of enforcement agencies to interdict to stop the trade and save the wild elephants,” he said.

Wasser said that he hoped the findings — obtained through 15 years of logistically challenging on-the-ground research and collaborations with INTERPOL, seizing countries, and other government and non-government entities — would lead to efforts to choke the trade at its source.

“We are losing 50,000 elephants per year to poachers with only 470,000 remaining in Africa,” he said. “If we don’t stop the killing of the world’s largest land mammal, which is also a keystone species in its environment, Africa will experience serious and potentially irreversible ecological and economic consequences.”

Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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