Elephant ivory reveals DNA of extinct woolly mammoth

Scientists working to halt the illegal trade of elephant ivory were surprised to come across DNA from the 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth.

The extinct creature’s DNA was discovered in trinkets from Cambodia in Southeast Asia.

The find was made by a team at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), who have been pioneering the use of genetic data to determine the origin of ivory and help tackle the criminal trade.

Dr Alex Ball, from RZSS’s WildGenes Programme, said: “It was a surprise for us to find trinkets made from woolly mammoth ivory in circulation, especially so early into our testing and in a tropical country like Cambodia.

“It is very hard to say what the implications of this finding are for existing elephant populations, however we plan to continue our research and will use genetics to work out where it has come from.”

Scientists on the project hope to develop a conservation genetics laboratory in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to help monitor dwindling elephant populations and determine the origin of ivory found on the marketplace.

They say that each year around 30,000 elephants are killed for their ivory across the globe, and there appear to be increasing amounts of ivory for sale in Cambodia.

Dr Ball said: “Understanding where the ivory is coming from is vital for enforcement agencies looking to block illegal trade routes.

“If we can use genetics to identify where elephants are being killed for their ivory, measures can be taken to protect those most at risk of persecution.

“DNA from ivory samples can reveal important information about the individual that grew the tusk, including where its closest relatives live.

“We are working with partners in Cambodia to support and train staff, which will enable them to carry out more of this work, which is vital to conservation efforts.”