Genetic map aids tracking of illegal ivory

Using a revolutionary genetic map of elephant herds in Africa, scientists have traced a multi-million-pound haul of ivory products to its origins on the southern African savanna.

The shipment of more than 6.5 tonnes of contraband tusks and ivory stamps was seized in Singapore after being packed into a six-meter container in Malawi and sent to Asia via South Africa.

Using the map, researchers working with investigators from Interpol tracked the ivory to a narrow band of southern Africa, centring on Zambia.

The investigation marks the first time the map has been used to identify the source of an illegal haul of ivory and deals a significant blow to the trade, which has seen market prices soar from $100 per kilogramme in the late 1990s to $750 last year. The dramatic price rise has raised concerns that commodity speculators are now buying up ivory to sell when prices peak.

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photo by Wim Botha