Biostatisticians Contribute to UW Study Pinpointing Ivory Poaching

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Scientists have used DNA analysis to identify elephant poaching hotspots in Africa, according to a new study.

Several members of the Department of Biostatistics within the University of Washington School of Public Health co-authored the article, published online in the journal ScienceThe study was led by Samuel Wasser, research professor of Biology and director of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology.

"As modern genetic data become more extensive and complex, there is an increasing need for biostatisticians on research teams. The Genetic Analysis Center at the University of Washington was pleased to be included in this study," said Bruce Weir, center director and professor of biostatistics.

Researchers used DNA evidence from elephant dung, tissue and hair across the African continent and compared that with DNA from the ivory of seized contraband to determine the elephants' original population. The scientists analyzed 28 large ivory seizures made between 1996 and 2014.

Results suggests the majority of ivory in recent seizures came from two key areas. Most of the savanna elephant ivory was traced to southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Most of the forest elephant ivory was traced to an ecosystem covering parts of Cameroon, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Increasing law enforcement in those hotspots could curtail poaching and assist with elephant recovery. "Targeting those areas would choke the biggest flow of contraband ivory entering the ballooning criminal networks that allow this transnational crime to operate," the study authors wrote.

Other co-authors from the Department of Biostatistics included Lisa Brown, a PhD student, and Cathy Laurie, senior principal scientist.