Elephant DNA Map to Help Fight Poaching

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

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

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

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

A Deadly Trade

Elephants have long suffered from ivory hunting. The Asian and U.S. ivory markets took off in the 1980s, and the African elephant population plummeted from 1.3 million to 600,000 between 1979 and 1986.

International sales of ivory were banned in 1989 by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, backed by the United Nations. However, poaching has continued.

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

Wasser and Comstock are building a map to show the origin of specific elephant DNA fingerprints that will help pinpoint their geographic origins.

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

The scientists are using about 700 elephant DNA samples, from countries with 80 percent of Africa’s elephants, collected by a Kenyan scientist who studied the difference between forest and savanna elephants.

Asia in Need

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

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

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

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