Saving Dumbo with dung and dogs
WITH THE HELP OF dogs and dung, scientist Samuel K. Wasser is mapping out the geographic origin of herds of African elephants, helping him identify potential poaching hotspots. The conservation biologist at the University of Washington has trained dogs to sniff out elephant faeces over a wide area. This technique has previously helped researchers monitor the health of other threatened species including northern spotted owls and grizzly bears, without the need to actually spot them. He then cross-references DNA extracted from elephant dung to DNA extracted from the base of the tusks to pinpoint the animals’ origins. Today, he and his team have placed species up to 300 kilometres from their birthplace and have so far identified Mombasa in Kenya, Entebbe in Uganda and Togo in West Africa as major poaching hotspots. His work was hugely credited in the 2016 ar rest of ivor y traf f icking kingpin, Feisal Mohamed Ali. Sadly, he was acquitted last August by Mombasa High Court based on what was described in the The Eastafrican newspaper as an, “unconstitutional ruling”. Often funded by multinational cartels, the illegal ivory trade connects impoverished poachers to middle men who move the ivory to ports, where tusks are consolidated and shipped off to buyers. Prior to Wasser’s research, traffickers faced minor sentences for single seizures. Establishing connections between shipments can link traffickers to organised crime which can result in them getting heavier sentences. Though the international ivory trade has been outlawed since 1989, illegal trafficking continues. According to WWF, nearly 90% of African elephants have been wiped out in the past decade and around 20,000 are killed annually today. Figures from 2016 estimate the population at around 415,000.