Fighting illegal elephant ivory trade in Central Africa using DNA profiling

By Stéphanie Bourgeois, PhD student at University of Stirling

https://www.stir.ac.uk/natural-sciences/staff-directory/postgraduates/stephaniebourgeois/

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Aerial image of Gabon’s forest cover

Gabon is a paradise for biodiversity. From a plane, you will see seemingly endless forests. You can get lost during days in this forest without encountering any signs of human settlement, only surrounded by wildlife, such as elephants, great apes, mandrills or pangolins. But under the canopy, an increasing exploitation of natural resources is ongoing including logging, mining and elephant ivory poaching.

Elephants in Gabon are forest elephants. Despite morphological, behavioural and genetic differences, forest elephants have not been yet formally recognised as a separate species. But with a 60% population decline within the last ten years, this taxon is highly endangered. While Gabon represents only 13% of Central Africa rainforests, it is estimated that half of the remaining forest elephant population is in Gabon only. But for how long? Ivory illegal trade is causing a dramatic pressure on elephant population, and in a decade the North-East part of the country has lost 75% of its elephant population due to poaching.

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Forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) in Ivindo National Parc, Gabon (©Christopher Orbell)

Forest elephants live in large wilderness areas that can be reached only by foot, sometimes by pirogue. As a consequence, they have been understudied compared to savannah elephants and it makes anti-poaching operations even more challenging. Elephant carcasses are difficult to detect in dense tropical rainforests making population monitoring even harder. In this context, dramatic population loss can be overlooked. Elephant poaching is difficult to fight, because it requires fighting well organized international illegal trade. Innovative tools are needed to support law enforcement efforts and monitor poaching pressure and ivory trade networks.

A collaborative project between the National Parks Agency of Gabon and expertise from the UK (The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and the University of Stirling) aims at developing genetic tools to support management and protection actions. DNA profiling is a powerful technique allowing to identify individuals. Applied to elephants, this technique can be used to monitor populations (mark-recapture studies) and assist with law enforcement actions, by matching bone and tissue samples recovered from elephant carcasses killed by poachers to blood stained clothing or ivory seized.

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Sampling of an elephant carcass for DNA profiling

Traditional genetic markers such as microsatellites and mitochondrial DNA need sophisticated equipment (i.e. sequencer) that is lacking in most countries hosting species involved in the illegal wildlife trade. That’s why we developed new genetic markers for forest elephants (SNP: single nucleotide polymorphism). This technique can be easily implemented in Gabon through the installation of easy to maintain equipment, thus eliminating the need to outsource PCR products for genotyping. In addition, SNPs have the advantage of generating data that can be shared between laboratories without calibration. This makes them ideal for long-term databases and data sharing between laboratories, e.g. source and consumer countries involved in the ivory trade.

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Genetic profiling is now performed at the Tropical Ecology Research Institute in Libreville, Gabon

Through collaboration with the National Center for Scientific and Technological Research (CENAREST), the techniques developed in the UK have been transferred to the Tropical Ecology Research Institute (IRET) laboratory in Libreville. Gabon now has in-country capacity to produce unique genetic profiles for forest elephants. This is the first time Gabon and Central Africa is autonomous for genotyping its own samples.

Funds for the project were provided by CEEAC under the ECOFAC V Programme (Fragile ecosystems of Central Africa) funded by the European Union, and by the African Elephant Fund.

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