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Seattle researcher uses DNA to fight ivory trade, protect elephants

Ivory, it’s that beautiful creamy white, sometimes even pinkish tooth that can only be had by killing an elephant. Now, A researcher at the University of Washington is helping to put a dent in the illegal ivory trade in Africa. His name isSam Wasser and he is the director of the center for conservation biology at the University of Washington.

"The ivory trade is really the original blood diamonds. Since 2006, we have seen seizures that have been consistently over 20-tons of ivory. It’s been frustrating, we've been trying to sound this alarm for years and no one has been listening!"

Wasser says militias, such as the Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Somalia Shifta – groups of armed men killing civilians and enslaving women and children – are believed to be responsible for
slaughtering thousands of elephants for their ivory every year.

"A lot of insurgents are using ivory to get hard currency to buy weapons and ammunition to fight their battles."

Until recently if a shipping container filled with ivory was found, law enforcement thought it was cherry picked from different places. But Wasser figured out a way to extract DNA from elephant dung and elephant tusks. When the DNA from these are matched, he can map where the ivory came from. The results reveal a disturbing trend.

"These dealers are actually sending out purchase orders saying ‘I need 500 tusks by this date.' And then their dealers will go out and poach the same are over and over again to meet that number and ship them out."

The demand for ivory is very high in Asia, especially in China where there is going growing middle class.
Wasser warns if we let elephants be hunted to extinction, it will be an ecological disaster for Africa.

“The ecological consequences of the loss of these elephants to Africa is enormous. It’s so much more than killing this majestic species. It’s a huge animal. It eats a phenomenal amount of vegetation. It’s an architect throughout Africa. Elephants prevent the forest from taking over the Savannah. They keep watering holes open and help pollinate trees that other animals and humans rely on.”

And if the elephants do disappear, there won’t just be ecological consequences.
Organized crime is behind most of the illegal ivory trade and when the ivory is gone Wasser and the law enforcement officers he is working with say these criminals will be looking for new business. Drugs, human trafficking, the possibilities are endless.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.