Rewriting Life

How DNA Maps Could Save Animals

Mapping the genetic diversity of illegally hunted species could help scientists target the origins of outlawed products.

Efforts to create regional genetic databases of threatened animals could help wildlife experts protect them. In a study published this week, scientists at the University of Washington, in Seattle, developed a genetic-variability map of African elephants and then used it to find the origins of the largest illegal ivory seizure since the international ban on ivory began in 1989. The same technique could be used to help protect other animals subject to poaching, such as tigers and whales.

Illegal ivory: Scientists extract DNA from poached elephant tusks (top image). They then search for specific variations in the DNA (bottom images) that signify where the elephant came from.

“Now we can identify which populations are being hit by poachers and can apply resources to protect the populations in greatest need,” says Bill Clark, coauthor of the paper and a senior advisor to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an animal-advocacy organization headquartered in Yarmouth Port, MA.

After visiting Tanzania, the most heavily poached area of Africa, Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and lead author of the study, began the mapping project in 2002. (Wasser has pioneered the use of scat as a source of DNA.) To create the elephant map, he analyzed DNA samples from elephants in zoos and identified regions of their genomes that varied significantly among the animals. Wasser then convinced colleagues in Africa to send him elephant scat samples from around the country. Using 16 of these variability markers, the team created a map of the genetic diversity of African elephants–the first map of its kind.

Wasser also developed a technique to extract DNA from ivory, which he is now using to analyze poached elephant tusks seized in Africa. The researchers compare genetic markers from the tusks with the genetic-variability map and triangulate the source of the ivory. The results of their first study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that most of the tusks from a 6.5-ton ivory seizure in Singapore in 2002–the largest ivory seizure since the 1989 ban–came from elephants that had lived in Zambia.

“Until this technology became available, we could almost never trace elephant ivory back to the source,” says Clark. “We worked mostly with shipping and other documents, trying to track the seized ivory back to the port of export. But we could never trace it back to the population of animals.”

Wasser and his colleagues now aim to track the movement of illegal ivory all over the world. “Large-scale seizures in Africa, India, and China could now easily be tested and allow Interpol to track down and capture criminals in this trade,” says Peter Pueschel, manager of the wildlife trade program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The scientists are analyzing tusks from most of the major ivory seizures in the past 18 months.

Now that the DNA-variability technique has proved its worth, Wasser hopes that other scientists will spearhead similar projects for other endangered species. Several African nations have already expressed interest in developing maps for tigers, which are poached for their pelts, organs, and bones, as well as for various animals hunted for bush meat, some of which comes from endangered species such as gorillas. Wasser says the biggest challenge will be gathering a regionally diverse collection of scat samples to create the maps.

These types of maps could also aid in conservation efforts by allowing ecologists to design wildlife parks that take into account the movements of specific populations of elephants or other animals. Countries in southern Africa, for example, are considering creating a multinational “megapark” out of smaller wildlife parks throughout the region. Identifying genetically similar populations will allow scientists to place corridors between the different regions that keep animals from the same populations together. Says Rudi van Aarde, chair of the conservation-ecology research unit at the University of Pretoria, “It’s all about resurrecting traditional migratory patterns that have now been fragmented.”

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.