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Ivory seized by S’pore authorities in March to undergo DNA analysis

SINGAPORE — Efforts to analyse the DNA of 3.5 tonnes of ivory seized by the Singapore authorities in March are underway, and findings could help to pinpoint where the elephants were poached and shed greater light on ivory trafficking.

An AVA officer weighing an elephant tusk from the seizure.

An AVA officer weighing an elephant tusk from the seizure.

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SINGAPORE — Efforts to analyse the DNA of 3.5 tonnes of ivory seized by the Singapore authorities in March are underway, and findings could help to pinpoint where the elephants were poached and shed greater light on ivory trafficking.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said on Friday (May 4) it is working with an American conservation biologist known for his groundbreaking work using DNA – or deoxyribonucleic acid – to aid the conservation of elephants.

Populations of the largest land animal are in peril due to poaching and the illegal trade in ivory, and tens of thousands of elephants are reportedly slaughtered every year.

Dr Samuel Wasser and his team from the University of Washington visited Singapore last month and collected 253 samples of the tusks seized.

The AVA is also working with the United States’ Homeland Security Investigations, the Singapore government agency added.

The shipment, which was declared to contain groundnuts, originated from Nigeria and was to be re-exported to Vietnam. It was detained at the Pasir Panjang Scanning Station by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority on March 5.

The AVA inspected the container and found 61 bags containing 1,787 pieces of elephant ivory estimated to be worth about US$2.5 million (S$3.3 million). The AVA said in March that the importer was assisting with investigations.

Dr Wasser said: “The ivory we are sampling now was seized a month and a half ago. That’s the shortest time we’ve ever had between the seizure (being) made and us getting to sample it. By getting the information quick, we can have a greater effect in enforcement.”

DNA analysis takes three weeks from the time the samples arrive at the laboratory, he said. Countries may not release ivory seized to his team until cases are closed, which can be months or years later. But if brought in earlier, his team can help enforcement agencies to “build a better prosecution”, added Dr Wasser. Besides Singapore, his team has worked with authorities from countries such as Kenya, Mozambique, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to collect samples of seized ivory.

He called Singapore the most responsive country he has worked with and said it was the first country which his team had worked with to conduct DNA analysis of seized ivory more than a decade ago.

Scientists including Dr Wasser found ways to extract DNA from faeces in the 1990s.

Dr Wasser did it for elephant dung and was able to map elephant genetics across the African continent. Soon after, he succeeded in getting DNA out of ivory. By comparing it with the genetic map, it became possible to show where the ivory had originated.

Dr Wasser told The New York Times in 2016 he could “take a tusk from anywhere in Africa and trace its origins to within 300km of where that elephant was killed, often to the very park or reserve”. Such information has enabled conservationists to know where syndicates operate and, sometimes, to stop the crimes from happening, he said.

Data collected can help to identify the major poaching hotspots in Africa and how they change over time, Dr Wasser told TODAY via email. It is also able to connect individual cartels to multiple shipments, and serves to focus law enforcement on the most important poaching hotspots as well as the major cartels driving them.

Dr Wasser’s analysis, including of ivory seized in Singapore, has successfully helped in enforcement overseas, said the AVA.

“Our collaboration with Dr Wasser and (the US Homeland Security Investigations) is important as DNA analysis can help identify hotspots where poaching and illegal ivory trade originate,” said Dr Anna Wong, director of AVA’s import and export regulation department. “We are confident that our efforts will contribute to the global fight against illegal ivory trade.”

The AVA’s veterinary public health laboratory conducts its own DNA analysis of seized wildlife products, such as rhino horn, ivory and pangolin scales, to ascertain the animal species, Dr Wong told TODAY.

But for DNA analysis to trace the origin of the animals from which the products are derived, it works with experts, she said.

Besides DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating has allowed scientists to determine if ivory came from elephants that were recently killed. In a recent study of seizures made in various countries between 2002 and 2014, researchers concluded that most of the contraband came from elephants that had been killed less than three years before the ivory was confiscated.

Samples from seizures made in Singapore were part of the study and researchers found that the 6.5-tonne seizure in 2002 originated from elephants in Zambia, while ivory seized in 2014 came from elephants in East Africa.

In 2016, Singapore was labelled a country of “primary concern” for its role as a transit point for ivory trafficking by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

But late last year, it was exempted from having to come up with a National Ivory Action Plan to strengthen controls, after it convinced members of a global convention that measures were in place.

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