Catching Elephant Poaching with Crime Scene DNA

Elephant poaching is big business. Current estimates have the illegal ivory trade worth as much as $10 billion a year. With current African elephant populations at only half a million, researchers are trying novel approaches to help stop elephant poaching.

A study led by Dr. Samuel Wasser, a biologist at the University of Washington, analyzed DNA from elephant tusks seized from elephant poachers. DNA analysis revealed there are 2 main ‘hot spots’ in Africa where elephants are being killed.


This information is vital for helping law enforcement pin-point the main areas of poaching activity. Every year, an estimated 50,000 African elephants are killed by poachers. Poaching is driving the African elephant towards extinction.

Now law enforcement knows the 2 worst areas for elephant poaching: Tanzania and Mozambique. Other hot spots include parts of Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon.

“The source populations are where it all starts, and to be able to focus on the source populations, especially the major source populations, is very very effective at trying to target these killings,” Dr. Wasser, the lead biologist of the study, told the BBC’s Science in Action program.


Dr. Wasser and his team tested the DNA from ivory seized from 1996 to 2014. Then the team compared the DNA from known African elephant populations to form a geographic map of where the ivory came from.

To get the DNA for comparison, Dr. Wasser’s team analyzed samples of dun from 1,500 elephants currently living in different locations in Africa. The team also took samples from different family groups.

With this new ‘hot spot’ information, Dr. Wasser is hoping that local law enforcement, local governments, and the international community will all work together to stop poaching in these areas before they start.


US Representative Kay Granger has taken notice and included language in her House Appropriations Foreign Operations committee’s 2016 Defense Bill that expressed concern that poached ivory “can be used as a source of funding by terrorist organizations, extremist militias and transnational organized crime syndicates in central and eastern Africa.” The research study was published by the Science Journal.

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