Aug 30 2011

The Advance Method of Tracking Illegal Ivory Trade

Category: IvoryAnders Eriksson @ 5:05 am

The illegal ivory trade has continued to rise despite efforts on banning such business activity. The problem now lies on how to track illegal ivory traders. This is a question on the inability to determine geographic origin of contraband ivory. Ivory traders smuggle it across several international borders using many differing trade routes. This strategy made poaching hotspots and potential trade routes difficult to determine especially in the forests of Central Africa.

Recently, a scientific breakthrough has been developed that can potentially protect the thousands of elephants who are near to extinction. Researchers devised a genetic map of Africa’s elephants which will enable investigators to precisely locate the region where a shipment has been made. Aside from the genetic analysis, the method can also determine where stronger anti-poaching efforts are needed. Then, it will provide the basis for monitoring the extent of the trade. Poaching is the term use to refer to illegal harvesting of elephants.

Extracting the DNA was the most complex matter in developing the new genetic devise. The process involved powdering the ivory. However, the researcher team’s previous experiments to powder the ivory through heat had destroyed the DNA. In the latter experiments, the researcher team borrowed a method used by dentists to grind teeth to dust. This machine freezes the ivory at -240C, which brittles the ivory enough to be turned into powder. Thus, the DNA was preserved.

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They identified genetic markers in African elephant population from various locations, detailing a genetic make-up of the continent’s elephants. Then, they adapted their genetic test to ivory. They used African elephant tusks that were at least 10 to 20 years old. They used a statistical method to extrapolate genetic signatures to fill in gaps between sampled populations.

The new devise was initially used to seize contraband ivory in Singapore in 2002. Thirty seven of the 500 seized tusks were tested.

All the 37 tusks actually matched the genetics of elephants from Zambia and other near savannah. This resulted to replacement of Zambia’s director of wildlife and tightening of laws on ivory smuggling.

The advance technology is very timely during a period when illegal trade is reported the highest since its ban on 1989 through the listing of elephants in Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The population of African elephants has now dropped to 600,000 from 1.2 million in 1970s. Lately, the Singapore government seized 6.5 tons of ivory. This is the largest apprehension in the history of the ivory trade. In addition, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC reported a more than 4,000 elephants being killed every year to meet the demand for ivory consumption.

The increase in price of ivory is accounted as the major reason of steep increase in poaching. In 1989 when the ban was first implemented, the price of an ivory is $100 per kilogram. The price went down to $10 a ton in the subsequent years. But by the recent years, the price rocketed to $850. Thus, for illegal traders, ivory has become more lucrative.

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