Elephant poaching for ivory is now at "critically high levels," according to an announcement from the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime. A report says that poaching, heightened by involvement by organized crime groups, could lead to elephant extinction in parts of Africa.
"Wildlife crime is a serious and growing problem worldwide," said the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.
In response to the threat, the U.N. released a document titled "Guidelines on methods and procedures for ivory sampling and laboratory analysis" this week. Compiled by ivory experts around the world, the guide offers ways for investigators, law enforcement officials, forensic scientists and prosecutors to use forensic technology to combat elephant poaching.
Forensic technology has been used for years to track ivory's origins. DNA profiling from seized ivory can even be traced back to the location in Africa where it was taken and the specific subpopulation that elephant belonged to. Testing ivory is expensive, though, and not always employed after a seizure. But at a CITES meeting in 2013, it was agreed that all authorities who made a seizure over 1,100 pounds would have to submit samples of the ivory for DNA analysis. The move was aimed at exposing wildlife trafficking syndicates and targeting the areas where they poach. Writes wildlife conservationist Laurel Neme in National Geographic:
DNA analysis focused on origin has already produced interesting results. Testing of 6.5 tons of illegal elephant ivory seized in Singapore in 2002, 3.9 tons confiscated in Hong Kong in 2006, and another 11 tons confiscated in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan (also in 2006) determined that the massive consignments came from closely related elephants in specific localities: eastern Zambia for the Singapore seizure, a small section of eastern Gabon and neighboring Congo for the single Hong Kong seizure, and southern Tanzania/northern Mozambique for all samples in the 11-ton seizure.
Those findings, made by Samuel Wasser, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, show that organized networks were targeting entire elephant herds for their ivory. The new forensic guidelines proposed by the U.N. this week aim to enable this type of detection on the ground and at the end of the supply chain. Rooting out "well-developed criminal networks" that profit off ivory is its main goal.