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How DNA Testing Could Bring Down Ivory Trade’s Biggest Criminals

Genetic testing exposes three major cartels illegally trafficking ivory out of several African countries

New genetic evidence confirms that ivory poaching in Africa involves only a few powerful players who consolidate the goods for illegal trade abroad. (robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo)
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Behind every piece of ivory is the death of an elephant. Up to 40,000 African elephant lives are lost to poaching each year, with some regions reporting a decline of over 60 percent in their elephant populations in a single decade. Today, in a paper published in the journal Science Advances, scientists used genetic testing to implicate three of the largest export cartels trafficking tusks out of Africa during the peak of ivory trade between 2011 and 2014.

Poaching tends to be concentrated in regional hotspots on the African continent. The study’s lead author Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, says conservationists have been able to pinpoint a small handful of areas responsible for what he calls the “lion’s share” of ivory coming out of Africa in the last decade. But setting their sites on these targets isn’t enough. Ivory is almost always shipped out of a different country than the one in which it’s been poached, and there’s no trail of breadcrumbs leading backwards from the ports of exit.

What’s more, individual poachers and traffickers tend to be elusive. They wield a home-field advantage in the regions in which they hunt, and are seldom prosecuted even when apprehended. Even convictions, when they happen, don’t always stick. Just last month, a Kenyan court overturned a ruling that had previously sentenced high-profile ivory trafficker Feisal Mohamed Ali to 20 years in prison. The original sentencing, delivered only two years prior, had tied Ali to a cache of $4.2 million worth of ivory in a Mombasa warehouse, an isolated event representing only a fraction of his long-standing reputation as one of the world’s most infamous “ivory kingpins.”

“Wildlife is... very valuable, and yet so few wildlife cases are prosecuted because they are not a very high priority for law enforcement,” explained Wasser in an American Association for the Advancement of Science press conference on Tuesday.

Once ivory leaves Africa it becomes exponentially harder to trace, placing undue burden on the law enforcement agencies policing local smugglers. So Wasser and his colleagues focused their efforts on linking individual shipments back to the export cartels consolidating tusks, hoping to map the network of illegal trade within African borders before the ivory was lost to global dispersal. By analyzing DNA from 38 large ivory seizures made between 2006 and 2015, the team determined that 26 of the samples from separate seizures matched tusks from another shipment. The new research builds upon Wasser’s previous work, published in 2015, developing genetic tools to pinpoint the origins of ivory.

“Originally, people thought they had to have skin or blood on the ivory [to get DNA],” says Stanford University conservationist and Utopia Scientific co-founder Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, who was not affiliated with the work. “But this technique doesn’t even need that. It’s made the process simpler and more accessible.”

In most of these shipments, individual tusks had been separate from their pairs, but still tended to depart from the same port, within the same calendar year. And the tusks that shared a container often hailed from the same approximate geographic location. This told Wasser’s team that just a few powerful and well-connected cartels—likely operating out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo—were driving most of the ivory trade in Africa. Moreover, genetic evidence for the interconnectedness of illegal trade network may further implicate known dealers like Ali, who, according to Wasser, appears to be connected to several other seizures from the last decade.

Moving forward, DNA testing may help law enforcement teams double down on trafficking—not only at ports, but also further up the chain, as cartels have begun to equip poachers with guns to drive the source of their own supply. To this end, Wasser and his team are collaborating with government agencies both in Africa and abroad—including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—and working to increase participation of countries around the world that remain vulnerable to wildlife trafficking.

“So far, it’s been a cakewalk for [cartels],” says O’Connell-Rodwell. “This [technology] sends them a new message: Law enforcement has much better intelligence and can make smuggling much harder.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Digital Editor at PBS NOVA and Story Collider producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine.

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