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DNA dragnet widens for elephants and pangolins

Image: Elephants
The black-market trade in ivory drives elephant poaching. (Credit: Gary M. Stoltz / USFWS)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – DNA tests conducted by researchers from the University of Washington helped bring down one of Africa’s biggest kingpins in the illegal elephant ivory trade, but the scientists say they’re just getting started. Now they’re ramping up their efforts to go after more of the smugglers, and extending their efforts to protect other endangered species as well.

“We are now hot on the trail of probably the largest ivory dealer in Africa,” Samuel Wasser, head of UW’s Center for Conservation Biology, said here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

Wasser declined to comment further on that investigation – but it’s worth noting that authorities in Tanzania have arrested several high-profile figures in the ivory trade, including the so-called “the Queen of Ivory” and “The Devil.” DNA evidence could well play a part in the prosecutions, just as it did in the conviction of Togo’s Emile N’Bouke in 2014. Wasser’s DNA data provided the key for cracking the case.

For 15 years, Wasser and his colleagues have been building a DNA database that links elephant populations across Africa to the tons of illegally exported ivory that are being seized every year.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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