DNA Analysis Of Seized Elephant Ivory Leads Scientists To Identify Major Trafficking Cartels

Tusks from an ivory seizure in 2015 in Singapore after they have been sorted into pairs by the process developed by Wasser and his team. Center for Conservation Biology/University of Washington

An international team of scientists is turning to the lab in order to combat the illegal ivory trade. Publishing their work in Science Advances, University of Washington researchers used DNA testing of large ivory seizures to link multiple separate shipments over a three year period. Using their data, they found a majority of the shipments analyzed came from the same network of dealers in just three African port cities in Kenya, Uganda, and Togo.

“We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures — linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels,” said lead author Samuel Wasser in a statement. “It is an investigative tool to help officials track these networks and collect evidence for criminal cases.”

First, the team created a “genetic reference map” of elephant populations around Africa by extracting DNA samples from elephant dung. They then sampled 38 ivory shipments seized by law enforcement by extracting DNA from the tusks using a method that does not degrade the genetic material. Comparing the two, they were able to match key regions in the ivory DNA samples to the genetic reference map with an ability to identify where each elephant had come from within 300 kilometers (186 miles).

What’s more, they developed a DNA testing regimen for pairs of tusks that had been separated, shipped in different groups, and later seized in different ivory shipments. In all, they were able to match 26 pairs in 11 shipments for a total of 703 pairs. 

Each map indicates separate shipments, with the location, date, and weight of the seizure shown in the lower left. Wasser et al. 2018, Science Advances

“There is so much information in an ivory seizure — so much more than what a traditional investigation can uncover,” said Wasser. “Not only can we identify the geographic origins of the poached elephants and the number of populations represented in a seizure, but we can use the same genetic tools to link different seizures to the same underlying criminal network.”

James Urton

A previous study found most of the tusks came from two “poaching hotspots” in Africa. While the identity of the poachers has yet to be discovered – or at least released to the public – Wasser says this method will help connect arrested ivory traffickers to their broader networks.

“Targeting such cartels could have a major direct impact on combating the illegal ivory trade by preventing contraband from transiting out of Africa before it becomes far more diffuse and expensive to trace,” the study concludes.

 

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