Ivory DNA study sheds light on escalating international trade

Monday, February 26, 2007
Yarmouth Port, MA
The release of the long-awaited ivory DNA testing report by the University of Washington reveals the origin of the 6.5 ton 2002 seizure to be primarily Zambian elephant populations.
The ivory targeted for sampling, representative of approximately 3,000- 6,500 elephants, was confiscated in Singapore. By current estimations of customs authorities, a mere 10% of contraband products (guns, drugs, etc.) are intercepted. Presently, if such a premise is applied to ivory, considering the rampant ivory trade this past year, approximately 20,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory.
 
The DNA studies indicated that with nearly 100% certainty, the ivory originated from savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana africana) refuting initial suspicions by authorities that the ivory had come from multiple locations. Research estimated the origins of the ivory to be primarily Zambian elephant populations. In effect, certain forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) population yielding countries were immediately out of suspicion for involvement, allowing authorities to narrow their focus.
 
Identified as the largest ivory seizure since the 1989 CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) ban on the ivory trade (which was later revised to allow split-listing) and the second largest in the history of the trade, this particular shipment made for prime DNA sampling. At the Center for Conservation Biology at University of Washington, by examining allele frequencies in elephant tusks and scat, Dr. Samuel Wasser and his team attributed each DNA sample to specific geographic locations thereby enabling authorities to identify the general origins of the ivory. Results are immensely useful for today’s law enforcement authorities, struggling to identify ivory smuggling routes and poaching hotspots.
 
The release of this report comes at an important time for elephants with the ivory trade having reached an all-time high over the past year. It is grim state for elephants and a catalyst for change is necessary to ensure the survival of the species. Hopeful that this report will be somewhat of a saving grace for elephants, Michael Wamithi, the Program Manager for IFAW’s (International Fund for Animal Welfare – www.ifaw.org) global elephants program stresses, “This might just be the hard research that the international community needs to make these necessary and tough decisions regarding elephant population security and management.”

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