SEATTLE, June 19 (UPI) -- By matching the DNA in confiscated ivory to scat samples from all over Africa, researchers have been able to pinpoint poaching hotspots.
Scientists say the new data will help regional conservation forces deploy resources more intelligently and stamp out the illicit elephant ivory trade.
In analyzing DNA from tons of ivory samples, a team of international researchers, led by biologists at the University of Washington, found that illegal ivory is sourced from only two main hotspots in Africa -- one for forest elephants and one for savannah elephants.
"Africa is a huge continent, and poaching is occurring everywhere. When you look at it that way it seems like a daunting task to tackle this problem," Washington biologist Samuel Wasser said in a press release. "But when you look at large ivory seizures, which represent 70 percent of illegal ivory by weight, you get a different picture."
The most deadly hotspot is located mostly within Tanzania and includes some nearby parts of Mozambique. More than 85 percent of all savannah elephants are taken from this East African region.
The second hotspot is called Tridom, an expansive ecosystem in central Africa. It includes portions of Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. Researchers found that more than 85 percent of the forest elephant ivory was source from this area.
One of the biggest seizures of illegal ivory contained ivory from both hotspots, suggesting poachers and illegal traders from both regions are part of network spanning the continent.
"Understanding that vast amounts of this major transnational trade is focused on two primary areas makes it possible to focus law enforcement on those areas and eliminate the largest amount of illegal killing," Wasser said.
Even with the new information, conservationists and law enforcement have their work cut out for them. Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year by poachers. And there are fewer than 500,000 elephants left on the continent. Extinction looms.
"When you're losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something more urgent -- nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at the source," Wasser said. "Hopefully our results will force the primary source countries to accept more responsibility for their part in this illegal trade, encourage the international community to work closely with these countries to contain the poaching, and these actions will choke the criminal networks that enable this transnational organized crime to operate."
The new research was published in the journal Science.