Conservationists are going high tech, CSI-style, to crack down on the thriving trade in endangered-species contraband like ivory cell phones and illegally harvested wood. Conservation (July/Sept. 2007) reports that by checking DNA from seized ivory shipments against a genetic map of African elephants, investigators can trace smuggled items to their origins. That helps them identify which countries are cracking down on poaching and which are just paying lip service to international bans. Genetic sleuthing is also helping to detect whether protected shark species are being harvested to sate Asia’s cravings for shark fin soup. Even trees are being dusted for “DNA fingerprints.” In Australia, a DNA timber test is ensuring that the genetic profile of legally logged Indonesian trees match up with the trees that actually arrive in Australia—a guarantee that forgery and corruption often thwart when the industry relies on a paper trail of tags and certificates. According to Cosmos (March 30, 2007), the logistics of cataloging each tree are proving daunting, though, and the resources needed for wildlife DNA testing are costly barriers in the unceasing battle against endangered-species bandits.
illustration by Ellyn Lusis