“We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior”, said Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter [1,2] while reporting on how elephants are hunted for their ivory in 2011.
It is estimated that around 50,000 elephants are poached each year  for their ivory while declining elephant populations continue with environmentalists sounding the alarm bell given the ever increasing risk of a potential extinction of the species. For example, elephant numbers in Tanzania have fallen by 53% . With an estimated population of less than half a million in Africa, the issue of poaching needs to be urgently addressed to help stabilize elephant population decreases.
To this end, relatively recent research first published in 2015 reveals that most illegally poached African elephant ivory can be traced back to just two areas. Scientists matched DNA from the ivory that was being seized to that of elephant dung from elephants across Africa to map out where elephants were being poached.
The research team analyzed ivory from 28 seizures made between 1996 and 2014 and compared this to dung samples from 1,500 individuals, each from a separate family group and living in different locations across Africa [3,5].
Because elephants are social creatures and stay in groups, researchers were able to trace the source of the ivory by linking it to the dung DNA samples that were most similar to the DNA found in the ivory. It is worth noting that the ivory samples included 61% of all large seizures made worldwide between 2012 and 2014 .
The most shocking discovery was that most large ivory seizures since 2006 came from two poaching hotspots: Tanzania and nearby parts of Mozambique. The area of Tridom which spans across parts of Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon, was also an area of concern [3,5]. There was also a clear change in ivory poaching before and after 2006. Specifically, between 1996 and 2005, most forest elephant ivory came from locations from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but this was not the case for samples after 2005. Similarly, it appears that the savannah elephant poaching hotspot began shifting towards the north in 2011: from southeastern Tanzania it gradually moved towards Kenya .
Beyond tracing the changes in poaching areas across Africa, the research also revealed the flaws in thwarting poaching activities even in protected areas as more than 85% of the forest elephant ivory seized in 2006-2014 was traced to the Tridom protected ecosystem . In addition, the findings suggest that there must be a link between the traders of illegal wildlife products as one of the largest seizures of ivory contained samples from the two key hotspots. Samples originating from other areas in Africa also showed other specificities such as more complicated shipping strategies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, out of the 28 seizures texts, for 23 the genetic test proved that their actual country of origin was different to the one from which they were being shipped .
The research that brought these findings to the limelight was truly innovative and the first of its kind. It came about as a result of the combined efforts of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, INTERPOL and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, among others.
Lead researcher and author, Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington, hopes that the findings will help bring about a more targeted and robust approach to halting poaching activities. Speaking at the University of Washington’s news outlet, Wasser was quoted saying:
When you’re losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something more urgent – nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at the source. Hopefully our results will force the primary source countries to accept more responsibility for their part in this illegal trade, encourage the international community to work closely with these countries to contain the poaching, and these actions will choke the criminal networks that enable this transnational organized crime to operate.