A booming illegal ivory trade kills thousands of elephants each year. The issue received international attention in 2015 when four tonnes of ivory were confiscated by customs in Thailand. While the seizure was the biggest in the country’s history, the perpetrators of the crime were never caught.
To better equip law enforcement entities, a group of scientists in the United States are developing innovative tools to identify trends in the international ivory trade.
They are these keystone species where if you take one out, it has this huge ripple effect on all these other species. Elephants are true keystone species.
In this episode, Techknow’s Marita Davison talks to a group of scientists who are using DNA extraction, genetic mapping, and carbon dating to find out where the ivory is coming from.
In a lab at the University of Washington, researchers extract DNA from ivory samples and compare it to a genetic mapping database which is compiled by analysing DNA in elephant dung. By doing so, they can locate the site of poaching with astonishing accuracy.
“Right now from anywhere in Africa, we can assign a seizure of ivory closer than 300 kilometres from where it came from,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.
While DNA analysis helps locate the ivory, geochemist Kevin Uno at Columbia University is using carbon dating to determine when the ivory was harvested. Doing so can help determine if an elephant was poached before or after ivory trade was outlawed.
Stopping the ivory trade is not only a question of saving elephants – it is also about saving the ecosystems the animals support.
Techknow’s Shini Somara travels to California to learn why sea lion pups are underfed and dying along the state’s coast. She talks to Toby Garfield, director of Environmental Research at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration in San Diego.
He explains that one of the root causes is unprecedentedly warmer ocean temperatures in the northeast Pacific. The unusual temperatures prevent colder, nutrient-rich, deep water currents from swelling up to the surface water. This limits the sea lions’ food sources.
“The whole food chain gets depressed,” says Garfield. “A lot of those fish species that can move have moved northward, and the food source is a lot less than we had last year.”
As a result, sea lion pups don’t get enough food. And trends seem to be worsening. Rescued sea lion pups sometimes return underfed, and some adult sea lions are now showing up underweight.
Despite these setbacks, the Sea World park – which faced a backlash owing to its orca treatment – is now working to rescue struggling sea lions. Regimented tube-feeding is used to nurse the sea lions back to health, before tagging and releasing them back into the ocean.
Concerns lie within the greater picture of the more recent events and whether the effects of climate change will make this phenomenon a more frequent occurrence. As nursed sea lions return starved time and time again to California’s shores, the situation is the worst it has ever been.
Satellite technology is now being used by rescue centers to track the movement of the sea lions. It is such a new technology, many of the sea lions currently tagged have been dubbed pioneers of the movement.
This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera in 2015.