DNA analysis of elephant tusks reveals poachers’ links to ivory trafficking networks

DNA tests on seized ivory shipments that reveal family links between African elephants killed for their tusks are helping identify poaching areas and trafficking networks at the center of an illegal trade devastating the population of the largest terrestrial animal of the Earth.

Researchers said on Monday they conducted DNA tests on 4,320 elephant tusks from 49 ivory seizures, totaling 111 tons in 12 African countries from 2002 to 2019. The results could help crack down transnational criminal organizations in the origin of the traffic and to strengthen the proceedings.

“Combining these findings with evidence gathered from our law enforcement associates allows us to collaboratively connect the dots across a massive criminal network,” said University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser. , lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Most ivory is exported in large consignments – up to 10 tonnes each – shipped as sea freight and concealed among legal exports crossing oceans on container ships. DNA testing has matched two tusks from the same elephant or, more often, tusks from close relatives that were found in separate containers to be shipped to the same port.

Wasser said most ivory is now smuggled out of Uganda through the seaport of Mombasa, with ports in Kenya and Nigeria also often used. Wasser noted that the ports used by smugglers have changed over time.

Previous research by Wasser and his colleagues identified tusks from the same individual elephant that had been segregated and smuggled by traffickers in different shipments before being seized by law enforcement at African and Asian ports.

A herd of elephants pass through Addo Elephant National Park outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa, November 2009. | Reuters

The new research expanded the scope of the tests to also identify elephant tusks that were closely related, including parents, offspring, full siblings and half siblings.

The researchers used DNA from elephant dung collected across Africa to compile a genetic reference map of various populations. The new tests then allowed them to identify the geographic location where the elephants were poached, and also to connect the seized shipments to the same transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

“We found that a small number of TCOs are responsible for exporting the majority of large shipments of ivory,” Wasser said, with only three and probably fewer than six such organizations and with poachers returning to repeatedly to the same elephant populations.

Trafficking continues despite a global ivory trade ban approved in 1989, with demand greatest in Asia.

Until 2016, tusks came from elephants mainly in northern Mozambique and traveled north through Tanzania to southern Kenya, Wasser said. Around 2016, there was a significant increase in poached tusks in an area twice the size of Britain called the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which includes northern Botswana, northeastern Namibia, southern Zambia and southeast Angola, Wasser said.

A policeman stands next to a batch of elephant tusks seized from traffickers by Ivorian wildlife officers in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in January 2018. |  Reuters
A policeman stands next to a batch of elephant tusks seized from traffickers by Ivorian wildlife officers in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in January 2018. | Reuters

This area is home to 230,000 of the remaining 400,000 African elephants, a population that includes two distinct species: savannah and forest elephants. The study did not involve the world’s third largest elephant species, the Asian elephant.

“We lose up to 50,000 African elephants a year,” said Wasser, co-executive director of his university’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science.

Special Agent John Brown, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security criminal investigator and co-author of the study, said forensic DNA analysis has provided a roadmap for multinational collaborative investigations.

“It helps us engage with our international law enforcement counterparts by alerting them to links between individual seizures,” Brown said.

Wasser said efforts by law enforcement to link an ivory seizure to others are currently rare, leaving cartels able to continue operating and making individual prosecutions “highly vulnerable to sabotage by individuals.” corrupt in places of power”.

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