Good news for those trying to stem the trade in illegal wildlife: a new genetic forensic tool allows scientists to pinpoint where seized illegal ivory originates. Such forensic techniques have been used to identify fishy black caviar, suspect bushmeat, dubious traditional Chinese medicine concoctions and questionable fisheries, but the researchers think this is the first tool that links elephant ivory to specific locales.
Scientists from the University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Science and Washington State used mitochondrial DNA – or the genetic information found within cells’ mitochondria, which is passed down only from the mother and is distinct from nuclear DNA – to identify specific markers for 22 elephant groups from 13 different African countries. The researchers used samples humanely collected from elephants in the field and compared them to DNA recovered from confiscated ivory.
From 653 samples, the researchers found 8 different distinct markers, most of which could be linked to specific geographic elephant populations. Breaking those markers down further, they identified just over 100 unique mitochondrial DNA markers, and over 60 percent were country-specific. Combining mitochondrial DNA and traditional genetic analysis with DNA taken from a cell’s nucleus yielded the best results in pinpointing the elephants’ origins.
In Africa, elephant and rhino poaching has reached epidemic proportions thanks largely to the demand for pricey ivory and horns from Asian countries like China and Vietnam. Once ivory leaves a country by car, plane or ship, it’s often nearly impossible to trace it back to its origin, making it almost impossible to catch and prosecute poachers. The researchers hope their tool will help solve that problem while also helping to identify areas where efforts to nab poachers need to be bolstered. Eventually, the genetic evidence could be used in court cases, too.
More from Smithsonian.com: