Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows

Corrected August 18, 2006

A trail of DNA has helped investigators trace the largest shipment of contraband ivory ever seized to African savanna elephants from Zambia (Zambia facts, maps, more).

The size of the shipment—more than 500 whole tusks and thousands of individual pieces—means that elephants from a single region have been hit hard.

In the 1980s African elephant numbers plummeted from 1.3 million to fewer than 600,000.

The decline was partly due to loss of habitat, but ivory poaching played a major role. Despite treaties prohibiting international shipments, poaching continues today.

"The ivory trade right now is as bad as it's ever been," Sam Wasser, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said at a meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in San Jose this June.

Tracing the Trade

In June 2002 customs agents in Singapore intercepted a 20-foot (6-meter) container holding 13,000 pounds (5.9 metric tons) of elephant ivory.

The confiscated shipment is the largest seizure since the United Nations Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species banned the ivory trade in 1989.

By tracking movements of the container, investigators learned that smugglers had packed it in Malawi and shipped it through South Africa to Singapore.

The ivory was destined for Japan. Some tusks bore the imprint "Yokohama," a seaport south of Tokyo.

The shipment included 42,000 small cylinders—blanks for hanko, the stamps Japanese artists use to sign their work (see photos of carved ivory artifacts).

But investigators wanted to identify which populations of African elephants the ivory had come from, and for that they needed a "fingerprint" that would lead them to the animals that were killed.

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