Friday, May 25, 2007

Elephant Dung May Stop Ivory Poaching

The ivory trade was banned several years ago, but poachers have continued to kill elephants for their prized tusks. These ivory tusks are made into valuable items like figurines and jewelry that are treasured by people all over the world. The unfortunate side effect of these poachers continuing to hunt and kill elephants for their tusks is that the population of African elephants dropped quickly from over 1 million just over one-half million in a short time period. Poaching is the illegal killing of elephants so that their tusks can be harvested and smuggled to other countries so that ivory products can be produced and sold for a great deal of money. Elephant dung may actually be the key to helping to control the number of poachers getting away with this crime in the name of the ivory trade. Knowing how elephant dung can help elephants is sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves elephants and nature.

Using elephant dung and elephant skin samples, scientists have been able to map the DNA of elephants. Because scientists can now use DNA to track where an elephant has been, they are using the technology to track elephant poachers. By using the elephant DNA, scientists can trace ivory shipments back to where the elephants were originally poached. If researchers find that a large number of poachings have occurred in the same area, law enforcement can be strengthened so that these poachers will be caught and prosecuted for their illegal activities. Using this technique to track elephants is almost like a jungle version of Crime Scene Investigation. Instead of using hair samples or skin cells from humans, these scientists are using DNA found in the dung and skin of the elephant to trace where they have been.

The presence of DNA in elephant dung is a great thing for researchers. Instead of having to collect skin samples, which would be a tedious and difficult process, they can take dung samples and use the DNA in those samples to track where elephants have been. Because elephants go to the bathroom up to 16 times per day, scientists involved in this effort have a lot of samples to choose from. It makes it a little easier for them to track the elephants when they keep finding evidence that leads them closer and closer to the scene of the poaching. This method is usually used to work backwards. Law enforcement officials may confiscate a shipment of ivory or arrest someone who is suspected of being involved in the ivory trade. The surrounding area is analyzed and investigators search for DNA. Instead of looking to find the killer where the ivory is, these scientists then backtrack, checking dung samples along the way for any signs of the same DNA. When DNA matching the DNA found at the scene of the ivory confiscation is found, they follow the trail until it loads to where an elephant was poached. This is a very interesting way scientists are using technology to help keep elephants safer.

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