Published: Fri, September 21, 2018
Science | By

DNA tests on elephant tusks expose 'three major export cartels'

DNA tests on elephant tusks expose 'three major export cartels'

Now that he has established a model for identifying elephants and their poached tusks, Wasser said he is taking the same approach to track pangolins - cocker spaniel-sized anteaters that are prized for their meat and scales. "We needed to find a way to sample only a fraction of the tusks in a shipment, but that method also needed to let us get a glimpse at the diversity of poached elephants within that shipment". The information they have gathered is already being used to solidify cases against smuggling kingpins, a Homeland Security official said.

What: An global team led by Sam Wasser, a University of Washington professor of biology, is using DNA test of tusks from large ivory seizures to identify the networks of dealers that are gathering and exporting ivory out of a handful of African ports.

Samples from tusks seized around the world were matched to trace them back to three big crime networks.

One hot spot is in far northern Gabon, in West Africa, which has lost 60 percent of its elephant population in the past eight years, said John Brown, a special agent in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who is involved in prosecutions of ivory traffickers.

The poachers and smugglers hunt in relatively few "hotspots" and ship their product out to the world's black market from relatively few ports, the researchers add.

During that investigation, Wasser and his team noticed that in each of the seizures authorities gave them to analyze, over half the tusks was missing its pair. But through comparing DNA samples from tusks among 38 large ivory consignments confiscated from 2011 to 2014, they matched up 26 pairs of tusks among 11 shipments, even though they were only testing, on average, about one-third of the tusks in each seizure.

"There is so much information in an ivory seizure-so much more than what a traditional investigation can uncover", says 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". "By providing the DNA analysis for major ivory seizures across the globe, Dr. Wasser's lab has provided hard evidence ... to identify, dismantle and disrupt the transnational criminal organizations behind the illicit trade in wildlife".

"However, there were many irregularities leading up to and during his trial, and this caused the magistrate to recently acquit Feisal on his appeal". They hoped that this approach could play a role in helping stop ivory trade.


According to the study, poachers are presently being prosecuted for single seizures, but linking smuggling networks to larger seizures would help law enforcement build stronger cases against them.

"Methods that can connect individual traffickers to multiple large seizures have the potential to elevate their charges to major transnational crimes, simultaneously increasing the severity of their sentences".

"It costs about $25 for a bullet to kill an elephant and these poachers don't have a lot of money, so someone needs to be supporting them", Wasser said.

And since there are only an estimated 415,000 African elephants remaining in the wild - down from possibly 5 million at the turn of the 20th century - poaching is a key threat to the future of the species.

"We've tried to develop methods to attack the trade before the ivory gets into transit ... where it becomes so hard and expensive to trace", he said.

The ivory is sold to make art and jewelry. African elephant ivory trade has expanded into a multibillion industry that has led to the deaths of up to 40,000 elephants each year.

Large shipments now dominate the illegal ivory trade.

"The poachers in those areas know the area well and they only have as much ivory as they can carry", he said.

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