Imagine trying to protect all the elephants across sub-Saharan Africa. With poaching for ivory at its all-time worst, this is a real problem conservationists face. African elephants (both forest and savanna species; for differences read here) are under a huge and imminent threat, with real potential of extinction in the foreseeable future (some estimates are as few as decades). While we definitely need to educate people not to buy ivory, which is driving the large-scale slaughter, education takes a long time to see results, and in the mean time, lots elephants are dying. An estimated 50,000 of the remaining 434,000 died in 2013 alone. With limited resources (money and man power) and their range spanning across 37 countries, which elephants do we focus on?
In order to answer this question to maximize conservation efforts, DNA from ivory can help. By using ivory from large seizures confiscated at African and Asian ports, scientists can compare these samples to ones of known origin. The samples of known origin allow scientists to create a genetic “map” to assign a geographic area of where these elephants were living. This is exactly what Wasser et al. 2015 did; they used 16 microsatellite DNA loci with 1,350 reference samples: 1,001 from savanna elephants and 349 from forest. The samples spanned 71 locations across 29 countries. While this technique has been done for years, what makes this study so exciting is that it uses data from seizures last year (2014), and therefore samples from elephants poached very recently, allowing us to see where the killing has happened recently and likely still be happening.
Also surprising, despite that elephants range literally across the continent of Africa, the ivory seizures have been sourced to largely TWO places for those in recent years. For forest elephants, this is the Tridom ecosystem (abbreviation stands for Tri-national Dja, Odzala, and Mikebe National Parks) region spanning across northeast Gabon, northwest Republic of Congo, southeast Cameroon, and southwest Central African Republic. For savanna elephants, ivory mostly came from Tanzania, but also some from northern Mozambique, southern Kenya, and Uganda.
While these places do cover a large area, and there is a margin of error associated with the methods (416 km for forest elephants, 430 km for savanna), it is at least some good news that conservation efforts for targeting populations can be concentrated to these areas. For forest elephants, this is especially important. The species has suffered a dramatic 62% decline in only the last ten years and ironically, with the Tridom region noted as an important stronghold for this species.
Not only will this provide data to more effectively spend conservation dollars to protect these poaching hotspots, but it will also force these countries to be held accountable. Now that this story is out, these countries can no longer deny their role in failing to protect their elephants. It is important to spread the word through social media to make it known to the world that they are not adequately protecting their elephant populations.