Can DNA testing put a stop to the illegal ivory trade?

The world's elephants are in a state of crisis. Populations are dwindling, poaching is on the rise, and the illegal ivory trade has shown no signs of slowing down. The lucrative underground business has turned parts of Africa into a grim, blood-soaked landscape, but many see hope in the form of a familiar forensic tool: DNA testing.
This week, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed a new resolution that requires all 178 member countries to submit seized ivory for DNA testing, as part of a renewed effort to crack down on elephant poachers and the criminal networks behind them.
Experts say such testing can accurately identify the region where a given elephant was killed, thereby providing investigators with a detailed map of where poaching is most prevalent. When combined with existing information on known criminal networks, these data could help law enforcement track down responsible organizations, while pressuring implicated countries to take greater action within their borders.
The measure, passed at the CITES' annual conference in Bangkok on Wednesday, was immediately hailed as a "major success" by the Kenyan delegation that helped draft it, though its long-term impact ultimately depends on international cooperation and enforcement — two components that have thus far proven elusive.
For conservationists, the resolution comes at a critical time. Elephant poaching has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching levels not seen since CITES ratified an international ivory trade ban in 1989. Estimates from the UN Environmental Programme shows that global ivory trade has doubled since 2007, and tripled since 1998. In 2011, an estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed, and although official estimates have yet to be tabulated, experts say 2012 was likely even worse. Africa's forest elephants have seen an especially steep decline, with two-thirds of their population having been killed off within the past decade, according to a recent study.

By Amar Toor

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