Sunday, August 19, 2012

Africa: New DNA forensic tools to nab elephant poachers

Seized tusks by Kenya Wildlife Services, KWS.
A group of US scientists have developed a forensic tool that can help to catch elephant poachers by mapping out the animals’ mitochondria DNA.

The researchers collected mtDNA samples from 653 African elephants from 22 locations in 13 African countries including Kenya where elephant poaching is rampant to help determine where poached ivory comes from.

“The method developed in this research will be used by conservationists to determine the provenance of confiscated ivory since it is often hard to trace ivory back to where it came from,” lead researcher Alfred Roca, from University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences said.

“A ship may have left from a certain port in Africa, but that’s not necessarily the country where the elephants were poached,” he said adding that Sequencing the mtDNA can give a good indication of where the ivory is being poached, “then steps can be taken by that particular country to prevent the poaching from taking place.”

The research "Triangulating the provenance of African elephants using mitochondrial DNA" is published by Evolutionary Applications last week.

Following the research the Kenya Wildlife Services can use the finding to safeguard the country’s 37,000 jumbos which has been growing at 4% annually from 16,000 in 1989 when poaching for ivory was banned internationally.

Before being banned population of the jumbos in the country stood at 167,000 before poaching and reduced range are at current 107,113 Sq km, 33% of which is protected affected their growth.

“Our records indicate that Kenya lost 278 elephants to illegal killings last year. KWS will continue offering accurate and timely information on wildlife population dynamics to the public,” KWS states on its website.

It adds that the frequent seizures of ivory on transit at Kenya’s main airports “does not necessarily originate from local illegal killing of elephants” which the research is set to unravel.

From the research mitochondria DNA which is only transmitted by female jumbo who don’t migrate between herds and can be traced in seized ivory which when mapped from stored data can locate their origin.

“108 unique mtDNA sequences were identified which provided fine-scale information about the origin of the ivory. Among the sequences, 72 percent were found in only one locality and 84 percent of them were country-specific” the research states.

By combining the results with five earlier trans-national surveys it has helped to spot “81 elephant locations in 22 African countries with among the 101 unique short sequences detected, 62 percent were present in only one country,” which will aid in curbing poaching.

Other researchers involved in the work are Yasuko Ishida and Nicholas Georgiadis.

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