that's it for america tonight. we'll see you tomorrow. then at 8:00, john seigenthaler digs deeper into the stories of the day. and at 9:00, get a global perspective. weeknights, on al jazeera america. this is techknow. a show about innovations that can change lives. the science of fighting a wild-fire. we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity and we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science, by scientists. tonight, techknow investigates the ivory trail they've tried to seize it, burn it, but nothing has stopped the terrible trade in illegal ivory. now new tools... strait from the lab that could fight a crime that's
brought elephants to the brink of extinction >> getting a seizure is a great victory, but the elephant's already dead. >> marita davidson is an environmental biologist >> i am holding a tray of elephant poop. >> she'll show us the high tech plan to stop the killing. >> wow >> then, sea lion's stranded along the california freeway. yes, freeway... >> dr shini somara is a mechanical e engineer, she'll show us what's been done to to find out why this is happening. >> at this stage, are they feeling distressed? and i'm phil torez, i'm an entomologist. that's our team, now lets do some science. >> welcome to techknow im phil torres joined by marita davison and dr. shini somara. guys there are outlaws out there working in the shadows
committing horrible acts against defenseless yet majestic animals. we're talking about the ivory poachers who have decimated the populations in africa. >> it's really alarming because ivory goes for about a thousand dollars a pound, that's more valuable than illegal drugs. >> and you know what that means is that the damage has been devestating over a hundred thousand elephants have been killed in just the last three years and the question is what can we do about it? we found a team of scientists who are using some unexpected weapons- dna and radiocarbon dating- let's check it out. >> april 18th, 2015. thai customs intercepts 4 tons of ivory smuggled in bean sacks from the democratic republic of congo. it is the largest seizure in this country's history. the ivory, on the way to laos, seized in bangkok after a tip. the seizure makes headlines >> thai customs displayed over
3 tons of confiscated african ivory worth 6 million dollars. >> a historic bust of ivory from kenya... >> and that equates to almost 900 elephants... >> but the perpetrators of this horrible crime against animals are never caught. for law enforcement entities like interpol stopping the killing of elephants at the source is what's critical. the question is: where exactly is all this ivory coming from? >> they almost always ship the ivory out of a different country from which it was poached. because.... that's where you start your search, you're looking in the wrong place. >> sam wasser is the director of the center for conservation biology at university of washington. when it comes to solving the mysteries of the illegal trade, wasser has created a coalition of scientists, virtual detectives using techniques in:dna extraction from ivory, genetic mapping through dung sampling and radio carbon dating. this multi pronged approach
attacks a criminal enterprise that's brought the majestic african elephant to the brink of extinction. >> there's probably only 450,000 elephants left so the whole focus of our lab is to really to try and use dna assignment of large ivory seizures. >> singapore 2002. 6 and a half tons of ivory seized. the largest in the country's history. roughly 650 elephants were killed for this haul of ivory. but where in africa did the ivory originate from? they assume this much ivory must come from multiple sources. authorities send the sample to wasser's lab for analysis. >> right now from anywhere in africa, we can assign a seizure of ivory closer than 300 kilometers to where it came. >> wasser and his team get to work. the first step is to prepare samples of seized ivory. >> we cut off a piece of the
ivory, and then we stick that piece inside a plastic tube with a magnet and stainless steel plugs on the end, we drop that it in liquid nitrogen which cools it to minus 240 degrees celsius. so, extremely cold. within 3 minutes it comes out like baby powder. >> so it actually just pulverizes it? it pulverizes the ivory and it preserves the dna at the same time. that was one of the biggest breakthroughs of our lab. >> the elephant dna from the ivory powder seized in singapore is extracted and analyzed in wasser's lab. the dna from the tusks is then matched against a genetic reference map of africa's elephant populations. this map has been generated by dna taken from another source, rich in elephant dna. >> i am holding a tray of elephant poop. not exactly something you'd associate as a tool for fighting international crime, but these samples provide critical pieces of data for
creating a genetic map of elephants across africa. >> yep, collecting dung samples may not be glamorous work but it's a task wasser and his team take seriously. >> we make the map from the dung, we take genetic markers out of the dung samples. so, you see here this map of africa? so there's about 1400 total samples here and each sample is from a separate family group. >> wasser was able to determine the origin of the 6 and a half tons of ivory seized in singapore and shipped out of malawi. it all came from a neighboring country, zambia. wasser's team had made a discovery that would revolutionize law enforcement's approach to poaching >> basically this study debunked some of the assumptions that you and interpol had about how these activities were working? what were those assumptions? >> so there were assumptions that law enforcement in general had, and one was ...when you get a big seizure, they were cherry picked from all over africa, and what we showed was that is not what is happening.
that there are poached in the same area over and over and over again. >> the plight of the african elephant has been well-documented. these heartbreaking images were shot in a sanctuary for elephant orphins in kenya, >> from before, the biggest enemy of elephants... >> this two year old being bottle fed stood by his mother's body for three days after she was murdered for her tusks. >> first you kill the bulls then they kill the matriarchs so now you are destroying the leadership in your group and as well as the long term knowledge that these elephants have. >> and when elephants become vulnerable, so does the rest of the ecosystem. >> there are these keystone species where you take this out and it has the huge ripple effect on other species. elephants are true keystone species. >> sophisticated transnational syndicates oversee every step of the trade from the illegal poaching to the smuggling of tusks to carving factories and shops around the world.
this footage part of an undercover investigation captures a shipping agent explains how ivory is smuggled out of africa. >> we need an urgent method that stops the killing. even getting a seizure is a great victory but the elephant's already dead. >> last month, singaporean customs seized another shipment of ivory, coming out of kenya and headed for vietnam. 3.7 tons worth an estimated $8 million dollars. singaporean authorities have already contacted wasser to oversee dna analysis. wasser's lab now receives samples from over ninety percent of all large ivory seizures. >> what we are really trying to do is figure out where are the major poaching hotspots across africa. >> his latest study, based on dna analysis of 28 seizures between 1996 and 2014,
reveals there may be only two major hotspots for poaching in africa: southern tanzania and a place known as the tridem. >> and when you say hotspots you mean hotspots of poaching activity, hotspots of seizure activity? what are you referring to? a hotspot is a place where you are able to provide multiple tons of ivory repeatedly over multiple years. then we have a place we can focus law enforcement on, take those out and perhaps choke the source of the ivory from entering the network. and unravel it. so that's the big plan. >> coming up next: how the atomic bomb could save the elephants and bust up the syndicates trafficking illegal ivory. >> we want to hear what you think about these stories. join the conversation by following us on twitter and at aljazeera.com/techknow.
a techknow crew member is on vacation in thailand, when he comes across this all too common display. he's told they are ivory pieces offered up for sale for a price. the sale of ivory to foreigners is illegal in thailand yet as our camera shows, it goes on. as this old newsreel footage shows ivory was once very popular. >> ivory carving, a craft that's centuries old... but all that changed in 1990 when the international trade in ivory was made illegal.
dna analysis is one tool that could ultimately help governments crack down on where ivory is coming from. but, it can't tell investigators when the killing took place. >> anything post ban is illegal to trade. what it comes down to this radiocarbon dating method can tell us if trade of ivory is legal or not. >> kevin uno is a geochemist who uses a method known as radiocarbon dating to determine the age of ivory. >> this part of the tusk tthat was actually growing when the animal was shot. cause we need to know when this elephant die. and so this part of the tusk, tells us that. so we drill the powder onto this white paper here... and we collect it into these viles >> next, the ivory powder is combusted and turned into pure co2. >> so what is this? when we combust it in this tube, there are other impurities in
there, other gases, so we need to get rid of those so that we when we measure the radio carbon content, we are just measuring the co2 gas. >> radiocarbon dating. literally relies on the fallout from events that took place from 1952 to 1963... >> 3 2 1 fire! above ground atomic testing. >> between the united states and the soviet union, we've basically doubled the radiocarbon concentration in the atmosphere. >> what does that mean for organisms when you have a spike in radiocarbon in the atmosphere? >>what it did do is give them all a unique geochemical fingerprint in their tissues. all these photosynthetic organisms trees, grasses are taking in co2, some of them having carbon 14 in it and then the animals that eat that also take up that radiocarbon signature. >> look there it is, you can actually see it freezing down on the right side. so now what we're going to, torch it off and have the final
product. >> and you'll do this for every sample? >> yes. >> so its time consuming? >> it is... so you'll want to wear these to watch this process. >> awesome. >> so this is just a regular methane torch. not to be done at home. you kind of warm the glass all around, and its sort of like pulling soft-serve. >> oh, wow, yeah its gooey. >> and there you can see, there's our co2 right there. >> wow, so that s the frozen c02? >> yup from an elephant, headed for a radiocarbon radio analysis. >> after uno analyzes the radiocarbon content of a piece of ivory, he can match it against the bomb curve, a record of atmospheric levels of c-14 before and after the atomic testing era. the radio carbon dating of ivory could be used to verify the age
of ivory being sold on the legal market as antiques. >> here's the bomb curve, i call this left side before 1963 the rising limb so the tusk is imprinted with the radiocarbon concentration from that year, so we can then go and measure that radiocarbon concentration and say okay, for example, 1.3 and that allows us to draw a horizontal line across the bomb curve here. and you can see actually intersects it in two places, so we have two answers, it could be, 1960 or it could be 1980. so, the way to do this is to sample part of the tusk that you know that is older and the part of the tusk that you know is younger, and compare the relative radiocarbon concentrations and just fit them back onto this curve. so the older one, has a higher concentration and a younger has a lower, then you're on this falling limb of the bomb curve. >> november 2013. canadian authorities learn that a pair of tusks are being offered
by this toronto based auction house as antiquies, suspecting the tusks are not as old as the sellers claim, authorities confiscate them and turn them over to uno. >> i dated a pair of tusks. clearly showing this elephant was poached after the law went into effect, the auction house went into court and pleaded guilty. >> now uno and collaborator thure cerling have teamed up with sam wasser to apply this technique to investigate trends in the international trade in illegal ivory. since the ban on ivory, african countries have been stockpiling confiscated ivory. ocassionally they destroy some of it, but much of it remains sitting in government warehouses. >> they have huge stockpiles of 100 to 120 tons for some of these nations.... so they're sitting on this ivory waiting for the day that the international market opens again. >> if current poaching hotspots are shutdown, the next major source for ivory could be these stockpiles. and radiocarbon dating would help confirm it. >> to what extent do your
wrestle with despair with the situation and to what extent do you embrace hope? >> there have been some seizures i've got to say, when we pulled them out and started rinsing off and the blood was pouring off of them, we were just sitting there in tears. i mean that has happened but you know you get used to it and then you start getting these breakthroughs. so now i feel we have a plan. i think we are making an impact and that's what's really drives me. >> these types of dna techniques that you talk about that practice has been done for a long time to maybe track the origin of a disease, what took it so long to get to tracking down poachers. >> you use dna techniques to understand populations of lots of wildlife, we're using it within the context of conservation a lot more now it's still a fairly new field.
>> so there was a time whne ivory was used in piano keys and billiard balls and now it's illegal, but why is the market still so robust? >> the main markets are in china, and then actually the united states is the second largest player here. part of what's driving that is there's some communities in the u.s. that really value ivory. ivory is mostly found as an ornamental carving it's very beautiful when it's polished and carved and it caries a sort of status because of tis value so there's still a pretty high demand. >> from elephants in trouble in africa to a mammal of her own that might be in trouble here on the california coast, shini what do you have for us next. >> well i joined a ride along where we were literally rescuing sea lion pups, the story is crazy, some of it is heartbreaking, and it's coming up next.
>> hey welcome back to techknow. now there is a crisis unfolding on the coast of california from san diego up to san francisco and beyond. >> sea lions are leaving their natural ocean habitat and wondering up on shore even sometimes in peoples yards and streets. >> what i saw was really incredible and while with the rescue team, i was shocked by the numbers of calls they were taking and the amount of pups that they needed to rescue. lets take a look. >> this sea lion pup named johnny cash is making a run towards the open ocean with a satellite transmitter tagged to his back. he may hold the answers to a sad epidemic along california's coast line. there are plenty of highways
that hug california's ocean shores. la's 90 freeway isn't one of them. the sight of a baby sea lion a quarter of a mile inland is unsettling. but in 2015, it's not that unsual according to local news agencies. >> the creatures are stranding, starving, and apparently dying this year along the coast. >> the images tell a haunted story. >> while we have seen spikes in recent years, 2015 is already off to an unusually bad start. >> the headlines paint a picture of an epidemic of sick pups in desperate search of food, but what's really going on is more complex. techknow went to the san diego headquarters for noaa, a federal agency that studies the oceans, for answers. >> what's happened in the last two years is that the waters in the north east pacific have warmed up way beyond what we are used to. >> according to noaa a, warmer ocean off of southern california has made it harder for nursing sea lions to forage
and as a result the pups are not getting enough nourishment. el ninio is an event scientists have seen several times but this year's temperatures are quite different. >> what's really different is the water in the north east pacific warmed up over a year ago, usually that warming occurs after the el nino developed but in this case it preceded it. >> ocean warming impacts the food chain from the bottom up. as upwelling winds are causing deep water currents typically rife with cold water nutrients to circulate up mostly nutrient depleted warm water. >> so when you talk about nutrients, what is that? >> that biologic material in the deep ocean gets remineralized to inorganic nutrients and so the upwelling keeps that cycle going. so how does it affect the top of the food chain? the whole food chain gets depressed. a lot of those fish species that could move, have moved northward and the food source is a lot less than we had last year. >> and the evidence can be seen
daily all along the california coast from san diego to san francisco. in san diego, sea world, the company which faced public heat for orcha shows, has taken a public role in sea lion rescue efforts. >> gosh it's really exciting. how long do you feed them for? typically we'll be tube feeding for about twelve days. at about 5 days they start to gain enough strength and they start to show some interest again in fish. they will start taking one or 2 fish. >> sea-lions are first admitted to an almost triage like setting. the pups are fed a protein rich formula. up to 200 tube feedings a day take place behind the scenes. >> we have to gradually ween them on it because their bodies haven't seen fish and they haven't processed it properly. they have to show us they can process 3-5 pounds of fish per day which is what they would require to maintain their weight before we stop tube feeding them. >> brent stewart observes sea lion health at sea world's
non-profit research arm. >> so in studying their habitats, are you able to get a better idea of what is happening in terms of global climate change? >> food seemed to have vanished for some reason. the question is whether that is a sign of long term climate change. the bigger issue is are these little intense events that we are seeing recently going to become more common as climate generally changes. >> according to the national marine fisheries service, it's the worst year ever as rescued pups are returning starved again. >> it's the most historically busy year ever. we've already seen 2500 sea lions stranded in california this year alone in the first 12 weeks we are into the year. >> marine biologist and executive director of the pacific marine mammal center, keith matassa, has seen it all. >> they are actually 6 months old coming in to us under birth
weight. that's how starved they are. the other difference in this year that we didn't see in 2013 and 2014 is that, we're now seeing a lot of adults coming in that are very emaciated, very starved. you can see every bone in their body and that's a difference from the last 2 years. >> matassa and his team use satellite tagging technology to understand why this is happening. tagging sea lions is so new that these pups are research pioneers >> we wanted to make sure that the animals we were putting back out into the wild during this unusual event were actually making it. >> tagging happens fast as i learned watching johnny cash get his device. he spent two months gaining 25 pounds and is a worthy candidate. >> you are fine, i am not going to let him bite you. you're good. >> so you're trying to seal the edges. >> yeah, we're going to try ti do it some more in the back... >> that looks secure. >> yeah, it's secure, we're just gonna tighten it up in the back, and we'll be good. >> this year, several sea lions returned to matassa's rehab starving once again.
with rescue centers along the coast compiling satellite tagging data-there's hope that johnny cash and his newly released friends will beat the odds and walk the line towards survival rather than restraining. >> hopefully they are not returnees and they live a long happy life. >> that is the plan and that is what is going to happen, we are going to see them out on the rocks in 9 or 10 years and they are going to be big and healthy and happy. >> i work on a lot of behavior in my research and what i find really fascinating about this is what is causing this behavior. these sea lion pups aren't just going in a little bit from shore. they are going miles. they are going on this long journey in there so something evolved in them that the changing climate is just messing with their innate response to temperature. it's fascinating. >> or could it be just utter desperation right i mean if you reach a certain level of lack of nutrition does that suddenly kick in an instinct to just go wherever necessary to find
something. >> i mean because of sea temperature the food that they normally feed on has moved somewhere and so there sea lions are starving and they are cold. you are right. they are absolutely desperate. >> that's just really heart breaking. >> each of tonights stories show problems with the environment but more importantly we got to meet some very smart folks trying to solve them. that's it for today's episode. be sure to check us out next time here on techknow. >> dive deep into these stories and go behind the scenes at aljazeera.com/techknow follow our expert contributors on twitter, facebook, instagram, google+ and more. >> [crowd chanting] hell no gmo. >> they're slamming a technology that could be used to solve problems for people who desperately need it. >> they get exited about technology whether it's in their phone or in their car, so why is it so weird on their plate?
>> something's going into food that shouldn't really be there. >> techknow investigates. >> you could not pay me to fake data. >> i live in mosca, colorado aka the middle of nowhere. i can't always be myself. i'm considered one of the misfits. i haven't seen my mom in the longest time. my stepdad and i, we don't really see eye to eye. i really want to get out of here. i'm going to check out if i got accepted into colorado college. it is imperative that i get into college at this point. if i don't, i feel like i can't get out of mosca.