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A new study reports that ivory poaching is out of control in Africa. Black market sells an elephant tusk are relatively rare five years ago. Now, they're in all time high. Well-armed gangs of poachers have been killing off elephants by the thousands.

As NPR's John Nielsen reports, scientists say there maybe a new way to fight this problem, DNA fingerprinting.

JOHN NIELSEN: Poachers do horrific things to elephants. Richard Ruggiero, an elephant expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once found a baby elephant standing next to the mutilated body of its mother.

RICHARD RUGGIERO: And this baby elephant refuses to leave the carcass of its mother, even though she is decomposing and there are vultures on her. And eventually, the baby starves or lions put it out of its misery.

NIELSEN: It seems like that were commonplace in Africa before a global ban on ivory trading took effect in 1990. Afterwards, for many years, the poachers seem to disappear. But now, they're back, according to a study and the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One of the authors says it's possible that 240 tons of ivory were smuggled out of Africa in 2006 alone.

SAMUEL WASSER: That's about 24,000 elephants. And much of the ivory looks pretty fresh. So that means that that number of elephants were potentially killed in the last year.

NIELSEN: Samuel Wasser is an ivory expert at The Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. He says one key difference between the last ivory poaching crisis and this one, is that nobody is sure where the poaching hotspots are this time around. That's because more poachers are now working inside forests, where it's hard to find them, and because some countries, with bad poaching problems, have learned to look the other way.

But Wasser says there is a way to catch up with the poachers, one that uses DNA fingerprints to trace stolen tusks back to the spots where they were poached. The process starts when scientists pulverize bits of seized ivory, turning it into a whitish powder,

WASSER: Like baby powder, and then you can just extract the DNA very readily out of the sample.

NIELSEN: Wasser's team tries to match that DNA with DNA collected from wild elephants. When they find the match, they know where the elephant that used to be connected to the tusk was killed. The first big test of Wasser's system took place in the port of Singapore in 2005, acting on a tip, customs agents opened up a set of shipping crates, and found an extremely large cache of stolen ivory.

WASSER: Six and a half tons of ivory was the largest seizure since the ban, and actually, the second largest ever in history.

NIELSEN: Wasser says it's possible that 6,000 elephants were killed to fill those shipping crates. But when smuggling experts tried to find the site of the mass slaughter, they got nowhere in a hurry. The crates were from Zambia, but Zambian officials said poaching was extremely rare inside their border.

WASSER: They said in the past ten years, there've only been 135 elephants killed.

NIELSEN: But when Wasser traced the DNA fingerprints of those tusks, he concluded that the Zambians were wrong.

WASSER: We can actually pinpoint, based on the combination of genes found together, what country they came from.

NIELSEN: And that turns out to be Zambia.

WASSER: That turned out to be an area centered in Zambia, spreading east and west.

NIELSEN: Wasser's findings embarrassed the chief of the Zambian Wildlife Department, who quit. And even though no one he's ever been arrested, there are signs that Wasser's work is forcing some big changes. William Clark is a poaching expert and a co-author of the paper. He says several African countries are now getting tough on ivory poachers. On of the most recent busts took place in Zambia, where an Asian businessman was caught buying tusks.

WILLIAM CLARK: He pleaded guilty, and he was sentenced to five years hard labor. That's a serious punishment for someone from an industrialized Asian country, going to a Zambian prison. No air conditioners, no colored television, and hard work.

NIELSEN: Samuel Wasser is now attempting to trace bits of ivory from half a dozen other major seizures. He hopes to help anti-poaching teams zero in on other killing zones. But Wasser says the African elephant will not be safe until authorities in Asia, Europe, and the United States start cracking down on ivory buyers. He says they're the ones who've driven the price of an average pair of tusks past $7,000. It would take the average poacher more than a year to earn that kind of money legally.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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