Elephant DNA Map to Help Fight Poaching

ByABC News

S E A T T L E, Aug. 23, 2001 -- Scientific researchers are hoping to save thewild elephants of Africa through DNA.

Scientists at the University of Washington and the FredHutchinson Cancer Research Center are developing a system of DNAfingerprinting to identify ivory illegally poached from Africa.They hope the project will pinpoint where the ivory came from andhelp scientists learn more about the migration of elephant herds.

Dr. Sam Wasser, UW scientist and director of the project, wasinspired to save the elephants during the 27 years he worked inTanzania as a researcher of animal behavior.

“There is incredible pressure on elephants all over …. It isvital to track the consequences of the ivory trade,” Wasser toldThe Seattle Times.

A Deadly Trade

Elephants have long suffered from ivory hunting. The Asian andU.S. ivory markets took off in the 1980s, and the African elephantpopulation plummeted from 1.3 million to 600,000 between 1979 and1986.

International sales of ivory were banned in 1989 by theConvention of International Trade in Endangered Species of WildFlora and Fauna, backed by the United Nations. However, poaching hascontinued.

Wasser secured $168,000 in grants from the Woodland Park Zoo’sCenter for Wildlife Conservation and the U.S. Fish and WildlifeService. He enlisted the help of Dr. Kenine Comstock, a HutchinsonCenter molecular biologist.

Wasser and Comstock are building a map to show the origin ofspecific elephant DNA fingerprints that will help pinpoint theirgeographic origins.

“We’re basically using the same technology that is used inhuman forensics — the technology similar to what was used in theO.J. Simpson trial,” Comstock said.

The scientists are using about 700 elephant DNA samples, fromcountries with 80 percent of Africa’s elephants, collected by aKenyan scientist who studied the difference between forest andsavanna elephants.

Asia in Need

They are also using fecal samples collected by park rangers indifferent countries. The goal is to have more than 90 percentrepresentation of all African elephant herds.

Once the DNA map is completed, Wasser and Comstock will test theaccuracy with ivory from known locations in Africa. They hope thesystem will be up and running within a year. Wasser predicts theidentification system will expand to Asia, where about 5 percent ofworld’s elephants live and where they are even more threatened thanin Africa.

While the system may be limited by elephants wandering acrossnational borders, it will still help stem poaching, said Dr.Richard Ruggiero, program officer for the U.S. Fish and WildlifeService’s African Elephant Conservation Fund in Washington, D.C.

“It has the potential to be the most useful tool available tous, in terms of technological advancements in conservation,” hesaid.

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