It’s no secret that animal parts are a big part of the black market trade in our world. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins and many more animals are routinely targeted, killed and butchered mercilessly and dispassionately without any regard to their preservation or sustainability. These animals continue to become rarer every year and several are approaching numbers that will lead to an extinction level event. As long as these animals continue to be killed beyond reason, all too soon, they will join species like the northern white rhino, now in the twilight of existence, with the death of the last male of the species earlier this year.
Conservationists and activists have warned and warred against poachers for decades, but with the exponential increase in ivory prices, poachers have become highly organized businesses, with resources that often far outstrip the governments and agencies working against them. It’s suggested that some 20,000 elephants and 100 rhinos are killed every year for their tusks and horns. In 2007, elephant herds were estimated to be between 470,000 and 690,000, but in just five years after that, over 100,000 elephants were cut down by poaching to feed the ever-growing ivory frenzy.
Technology has been trying to keep up with the problem, but it’s not necessarily a clear case that things are improving. Professor James J. Spillane from the St. Augustine University of Tanzania outlined several different ways science and technology is fighting to stop the poaching; including advances in communication, satellite mapping and radio technology, drones and aviation, and DNA testing/fingerprinting.
According to a recent article by John Platt in Scientific American, nearly 1,800 smuggled ivory pieces were caught while being smuggled into Singapore, a popular entry point for the black market ivory trade. Using DNA testing, via methods like PCR and DNA fingerprinting, scientists like Samuel Wasser have been able to test elephant feces throughout all of Africa in order to map out each of the elephant herds. Since the feces contains DNA both from the plants that were eaten as well as from the animal eating them, Wasser was able to distinguish between individual elephants and trace their herds using specific, localized DNA mutations, and ultimately track down where those animals lived and died. From that, they are able to match smuggled ivory samples back to a specific region, allowing governments to tag poaching “hotspots” and potentially catch and convict both the poachers in the field and their crime bosses further up the chain. But as Professor Spillane remarked in his paper, the hotspots are liable to change after they are identified, as the poachers become aware of increased scrutiny and move their efforts to keep one step ahead of the agencies targeting them.
So the conservationists continue in their efforts to chase the poachers down, using each and every possible technology to their advantage, working to catch the poachers before they strike. And all the while, these amazing examples of life in the vast variety of our biome suffer for it and decline inch by inch toward the oblivion of extinction until the only way our children’s children will ever see them will be in picture books or museums.
If you would like to help save these endangered animals, there are many international groups that are always in need of additional support, such as: The International Rhino Fund (IRF), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), just to name a few. Don’t wait until these animals are a museum relic to wonder how this could have happened and wish you could have done something to help.