Ivory: a new DNA test to fight poaching

Forensic scientists have developed a new method to track illegal elephant ivory by looking at the DNA...
13 November 2020

Interview with 

Adrian Linacre, Purdue University


An elephant's head and tusk.


Forensic scientists have developed a new method to track illegal elephant ivory by looking at the DNA within. Processed ivory contains only tiny and mangled genetic fragments from the original animal, and so previously it’s been difficult to tell anything at all. But Adrian Linacre from Purdue University, and his colleagues, told Phil Sansom that their test can tell Asian elephant from African - and based on their experiments, with 100% accuracy....

Adrian - Something like 25,000 elephants are killed every year for ivory. It's taken from Africa, particularly; traded over into Southeast Asia; processed into trinkets of various descriptions; and then sold on the black market. Now somewhere like Thailand does have strict regulations about what it can and cannot import. But when you've got a bit of ivory in front of you, the question is, firstly: is it ivory? Is it from an elephant? Ivory could come from things like hippopotamus. It could come from other animals, particularly like narwhals. Second question: is it from Asia, or is it from Africa? Because you can't just look at ivory and say, “it's from Africa”, “it's from Asia”, or “it's ivory”, even, right? Now you can do some bits of microscopy and get quite good at that, but it doesn't really answer those detailed questions about African or Asian elephants. Now what we've done in the paper is looked at the smallest bits of DNA we can find: really old samples, really trace materials. And now you're going to get very, very, very small amounts of DNA left, down to what we call picograms: ten to the minus 12 of a gram. It is very, very small. What we've done in our test is developed a methodology whereby very quickly, within a process of only a few hours... a method that will tell whether you've got African or Asian elephant present.

Phil - Who is going to use this test then?

Adrian - Where we hope this could be used is by border guards out in the field. We've got some other tests which can do that, but they do require very sophisticated equipment and it can take a couple of days. Our technology is very portable. It requires very simple equipment. It requires very little training. And so what would like to do is deploy it into the field, into where rangers can work rather than laboratory staff.

Phil - You can tell African from Asian elephant then. Can you tell any more? Can you tell where in Africa the elephant is from - something like that?

Adrian - No, we can't. That's the next part of our test, to try and get that more and more sensitive. Now being able to tell whether it's African or Asian helps an awful lot in legislation; a lot of countries legislate whether it's African or Asian, and that really does help in some sorts of trafficking to work out the routes at which that bit of ivory has been traded.

Phil - Why ivory? What's the priority?

Adrian - Wildlife crime is, by any metric, massive and highly organised: somewhere in the order of between 20 and 30 billion pounds per year. That's only second to narcotics. It's the second-most highly lucrative trade, all of which is illegal. This will be groups of people, often using helicopters; come down, kill elephants very quickly, remove the ivory, back into a vehicle, and shoot off. So you can see that it's a very sophisticated type of crime. One thing I'd like to add is that forensic science has to make sure that there aren't errors in what we do. If you're from a research background, no one goes to jail if you make one error out of a thousand tests, but in forensic science, that might happen. So we need to go to a bit more level of scrutiny to make sure that our tests are robust and reliable.


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