Can Africa's Elephants Be Saved?

Scientists have turned to crime labs, Interpol, genetic testing, and even energetic dogs in a somewhat desperate attempt to curtail illegal poaching of endangered animals ranging from Africa's elephants to baleen whales.

"These are urgent problems," says Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, and leader of a multi-national research project that is fighting an explosive growth in the number of elephants slaughtered in Africa every year.

The odds seem to be stacked against them:

-- Ivory is so valuable, especially in the Far East, that even part of a single tusk can be worth thousands of dollars. In 1989, a kilogram was worth about $100. By last year, the price had soared to $750.

-- The driving force behind the slaughter is none other than organized crime, Wasser says, because a stash of ivory can be worth more than a pile of illegal drugs.

-- International efforts to stamp out the poaching following a 1989 trading ban were successful for the first few years, but have failed miserably in the past decade. Last year alone, an estimated 23,000 elephants were wiped out in one small section of Africa.

"The illegal ivory trade recently intensified to the highest levels ever reported," Wasser's team reported in the March 6 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tracking Down the Poachers

While elephants are threatened across much of Africa, one country has already demonstrated that it's possible to control poaching.

South Africa has been so successful that the elephant population has grown even too much. That country has more than 20,000 elephants, most of which are in a national park, and is considering birth control programs to keep the numbers from getting out of hand. But elsewhere in Africa, the story is very different.

Until now, fighting the poaching has been hampered by the fact that law enforcement officials had no way to track seized ivory back to its source, so no one knew the exact location of the poaching "hot spots," as Wasser puts it. But now they do, thanks to some impressive scientific sleuthing.

The scientists figured that if they could pinpoint the source and identify the hot spots, more intensity could be concentrated in those areas by law enforcement agencies, and it would be much easier to identify trading routes. But to do that, they first had to identify the DNA from ivory samples, and then create a map of genetic characteristics across the entire African continent.

And for that, they had to collect a lot of elephant dung in a project that has already taken five years.

But first, the genetic code.

To extract DNA, the ivory must first be reduced to dust, and "that was originally quite a challenge," Wasser says. "A lot of people had tried to do this before, but in powdering the ivory they heated it up and the DNA was denatured," or destroyed.

To find a better way, the scientists turned to the Bureau of Legal Dentistry in British Columbia, a dental forensics lab for the Canadian equivalent of the FBI. The lab uses a machine called a "freezer melt" to pulverize teeth. Instead of heat, the machine uses extremely cold temperatures to make the ivory brittle and thus easier to turn into powder.

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