Elephant Tusk DNA Exposes Illegal Poaching Networks

The new study suggests a shift in major smuggling routes

A group of African elephants including adults and juveniles walking across and grassland landscape
Africa was home to an estimated 5 million elephants a century ago, but today there are just 415,000 individuals left. Andrew Linscott via Getty Images

Scientists may have found a way to stop elephant poachers using DNA from trafficked ivory.

Researchers at the University of Washington are using genetic clues from elephant tusks to expose poaching networks that drive the slaughter of more than 10,000 African elephants each year. Their work reveals close familial ties between poached elephants, and shows a shift in trafficking routes to major ports.

In combination with habitat loss and climate change, the illegal ivory trade has decimated the two wild African elephant populations over recent decades. Africa was home to an estimated five million elephants a century ago, but by 1979, the number dropped to 1.3 million. Today, the total number of elephants in Africa is estimated to be around 415,000.

Despite bans on ivory trafficking, an estimated 1.1 million pounds of poached elephant tusks are shipped from Africa each year, largely to overseas markets in Asia, per ABC’s Christina Larson.

“When you have the genetic analysis and other data, you can finally begin to understand the illicit supply chain—that’s absolutely key to countering these networks,” says Louise Shelley, who researches illegal trade at George Mason University and was not involved in the recent work, to ABC.

In the study published in Nature Human Behavior, the research team conducted DNA tests on more than 4,000 seized tusks. The ivory weighed roughly 111 tons and was poached from 12 different African nations from 2002 to 2019.

Their results revealed genetic relationships between the elephants that are being poached for their ivory tusks and exposed existing networks used by traffickers. Scientists also used DNA from elephant feces collected across the continent to compile a genetic reference map, which allowed them to identify where elephants were poached. 

"These methods are showing us that a handful of networks are behind a majority of smuggled ivory, and that the connections between these networks are deeper than even our previous research showed," study author Samuel Wasser, a biologist at University of Washington, said in a statement.

This study builds on Wasser’s previous work published in 2018, which linked multiple ivory trafficking networks to just a handful of African port cities, according to CNN’s Ashley Strickland. The networks identified in the earlier study "are involved with many more seizures and more connected to each other than previously discovered," according to the recent paper.

"The connectivity that we got of an individual transnational criminal organization to seizures was absolutely mind-blowing. I mean, some of them are connected to 30 different seizures," Wasser tells Andrew Mambo and Christopher Intagliata for NPR.

Their work showed that ports used by smugglers have changed over time, moving from Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda to Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The team hopes that DNA evidence from trafficked tusks could help governments find and prosecute poachers and says their work has already aided in the arrest of two ivory traffickers.

"Combining these results with evidence collected from our law enforcement collaborators enables us to collaboratively connect the dots across a massive criminal network," Wasser tells Will Dunham for Reuters.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.