DNA sleuths targeting ivory poachers


Maureen Dettre, Australian Associated Press

Date Published

An Australian scientist has helped pioneer a new technique he says is a great leap forward in the international effort to thwart ivory poachers.

Professor Adrian Linacre from South Australia’s Flinders University is part of a team developing forensic DNA technology to disrupt the thriving global black market in exotic animals.

He says the new test is 100 per cent accurate in identifying the origins of ivory pieces and thereby specific areas where ivory poachers are operating.

Ivory has been notoriously difficult to analyse, as it has only tiny amounts of DNA.

Elephant populations have been decimated by poachers hunting them for their ivory tusks despite being protected by national laws and CITES agreements.

In Thailand it is illegal to trade ivory from African elephants; however, the law allows possession of ivory from Asian elephants if permission has been obtained from authorities. But it’s been difficult to determine the origin through tests.

“This means the enforcement of legislation needs to classify the legal status of seized ivory products,” Professor Linacre said in a statement on Monday.

“Many DNA-based techniques have been previously reported for this purpose, although these have a limit of detection not suitable for extremely degraded samples. Now, this new technique has made a great leap forward,” he said.

Much of Africa’s poached ivory is shipped to Asia and broken into tiny pieces, primarily for jewellery and trinkets that can be easily resold, making accurate DNA tracing difficult.

However, the new process can confirm the legal or illegal status of seized ivory samples, even where it is assumed that the DNA will be highly degraded.

The study has been published in the International Journal of Legal Medicine.