Elephant Ivory Cache

Explore how to integrate ecology, ethics, and biotechnology into a biology classroom by basing a collaborative lab experience on real research on African elephant conservation. Students discover how modern biomolecular research tools can help conserve a species, in this case the African elephant. Students also consider the perspectives of various stakeholders and the historical context of conservation in Africa to better understand the challenges of solving the problem of elephant poaching. 
Close up of three elephants
Photo by Caren Brinkema


This unit focuses on the anchoring phenomenon of the decline of elephant populations across Africa. Throughout the unit, students consider the importance of elephants to the ecosystem and also consider various reasons for the decline of elephant populations before concluding that poaching has a greater impact than disease, weather, or predation. Students have an opportunity to conduct a hands-on lab using a set of simulated ivory DNA samples from an ivory cache seized by authorities. They then use gel electrophoresis to identify the elephant populations those samples likely came from. Students consider the detrimental and lasting role that the history of colonialism has played in the ivory trade. In designing solutions to the poaching problems, students take into consideration the voices and values of various stakeholders such as local conservationists, consumers, international conservationists, and community members. The unit culminates in students designing and presenting a solution to combat elephant poaching and evaluating their peers’ solutions from the stakeholders’ perspectives. 


Dean Witter Foundation


UW Center for Conservation Biology - Wasser Lab
Conservation X Labs


12 Lesson plans
20 Days to complete the entire unit
Remote or in classroom

Step 1: Complete Short Survey

Complete the short survey to support our grant-funded lessons.


Step 2: Download Unit Overview Materials

Step 3: Download Lessons

Maps & Distribution

Look at various maps of Africa and make claims about why elephant populations are declining. Develop an initial model to answer the essential question. 

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Keystone Species

Play the role of an organism in the African elephant’s ecosystem and create a physical interdependence web. Explore what happens when different species are wiped out and discover that elephants are keystone species.

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Survey Methods (HHMI)

Work through an HHMI activity to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of different elephant survey methods.

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The Reasons for Decline

Analyze figures showing reasons for elephant decline and discover that while there are many ways that elephants may die, poaching is the major reason that the population is getting smaller. Continue to develop the initial model.

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History of Colonialism in Africa

Discuss colonization and its impacts after looking at maps that show how colonizers divided Africa without considering the cultures and ethnicities of the African people. Discover the impacts colonization has on elephant poaching today.

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Poaching Hotspots (HHMI)

Discuss maps of elephant poaching and hotspots as determined by genetic evidence using HHMI handouts.

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CSI Wildlife (HHMI)

Work through 2 poaching scenarios to learn how DNA profiling works and how to build a reference map using an HHMI activity.

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Ivory Cache Wet Lab

Analyze 40 “post-PCR ivory samples” from a cache of seized ivory in Hong Kong in 2010. Determine where the ivory originated from by matching the ivory DNA to a simulated elephant database constructed from dung samples.

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Conservation Success Stories

Learn about various species that have been successfully conserved through a wildlife conservation success walk-about. Complete a 4 square to consider which conservation methods used for other animals could be applied to elephant conservation.

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Stakeholder Discussion

Take on the role of a stakeholder to explore that person’s interests and discuss possible solutions for elephant conservation using a jigsaw. Use discussion findings to develop a final model.

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Summative Assessment

Develop a solution proposal to the complex problem of the poaching of African elephants that considers the final model and the perspectives of all stakeholders. Each solution proposal should include plans for the $3 million dollars from a conservation organization to address the problem. A Pugh chart will be used to determine the best possible solution.

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Career Profiles

Read and analyze the profiles of people in a variety of jobs focused on elephant conservation and create a resume for a related job. 


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SEP Teachers-Only Quick Links

These links are for SEP teachers who are part of the kit loan program. To become a part of the kit loan program you must complete the 3 week professional development program.