Scientists Develop Elephant DNA Database to Thwart Ivory Poaching

(CN) – An international team of researchers has developed a new online tool to help law enforcement officials track down the original locations of poached elephant tusks, which they unveiled in a study published Friday in Journal of Heredity.

This new software tool, known as the Loxodonta Localizer, uses a database made up of DNA from nearly 2,000 African elephants. When a poached tusk is found, authorities can match DNA found in the tusk to an archived elephant.

Researchers report that because the specific type of DNA they examine is passed down from female elephants and female elephants naturally stay within their own herds and tend not to leave locations familiar to them, this cross-examination of DNA within poached tusks can help authorities quickly and accurately track down where it came from.

The database will also help law enforcement pin down areas of elephant poaching.

“The program enables identification of potential regions or localities from which elephants are being poached, with capacity for rapid identification of populations newly or consistently targeted by poachers,” the study states.

Researchers believe the tool could also help authorities uncover entire poaching and smuggling networks, as this kind of information could help establish trading and shipping ties when poached tusks are recovered.

Alfred Roca, who led the design on the Loxodonta Localizer and is an animal science professor at the University of Illinois, says the technology will improve as the database expands.

“Right now, I believe we have about one out of every 200 elephants in Africa included in the database. What we really need are more samples from more locations, so that the database holds as many of the rare but geographically informative sequences as possible,” Roca said in a statement accompanying the study.

In an email, Roca said the technology could have an economic effect as well.

“The Loxodonta Localizer is one step in the effort to reduce ivory demand and supply. It helps by identifying the populations of elephants from which confiscated tusks were likely poached,” Roca said.

The study notes poaching has significantly damaged elephant populations in Africa in recent years. Between 2006 and 2016, the African elephant population fell by roughly 110,000.

The study also reports that just 73 locations throughout Africa are home to at least half of the continent’s entire elephant population, and that as a result of rampant poaching, elephant populations are only about a quarter of what they should be.

Researchers estimate only about 415,000 African elephants roam the continent today.

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