Researchers have examined ancient DNA preserved in elephant tusks that were among the cargo of a 487-year-old shipwreck.
Their forensic examination of the 100 tusks pinpointed the devastation caused to the elephant population by centuries of ivory trade.
On this single ship, researchers found genetic evidence of 17 distinct herds of the threatened animals.
Today, scientists can find only four of those herds surviving in Africa.
The tusks were so well preserved – in cold water off the Namibian coast – that scientists were even able to find out what type of diet the elephants had, which revealed where they had lived and been hunted.
The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.
The wreck itself is a Portuguese trading vessel, known as the Bom Jesus, which went missing on its way to India in 1533. It was found by chance in 2008 in a coastal diamond mine, making it the oldest known shipwreck in southern Africa.