DNA analysis of elephant ivory reveals trafficking networks

DNA analysis of elephant ivory reveals trafficking networks
Elephant tusks are stacked in one of around a dozen pyres of ivory, in Nairobi National Park, Kenya on April 28, 2016. According to a report released on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

As few as three major criminal groups are responsible for smuggling the vast majority of elephant ivory tusks out of Africa, according to a new study.

Researchers used analysis of DNA from seized and evidence such as phone records, license plates, financial records and shipping documents to map trafficking operations across the continent and better understand who was behind the crimes. The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

"When you have the and other data, you can finally begin to understand the illicit supply chain – that's absolutely key to countering these networks," said Louise Shelley, who researches at George Mason University and was not involved in the research.

Conservation biologist Samuel Wasser, a study co-author, hopes the findings will help law enforcement officials target the leaders of these networks instead of low-level poachers who are easily replaced by criminal organizations.

"If you can stop the trade where the is being consolidated and exported out of the country, those are really the key players," said Wasser, who co-directs the Center for Environmental Forensic Science at the University of Washington.

DNA analysis of elephant ivory reveals trafficking networks
A Zimbabwe National Parks official looks over the country's ivory stockpile at the Zimbabwe National Parks Headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe on Thursday, June, 2, 2016. According to a report released on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. Credit: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazh, File

Africa's elephant population is fast dwindling. From around 5 million a century ago to 1.3 million in 1979, the total number of elephants in Africa is now estimated to be around 415,000.

A 1989 ban on international commercial ivory trade hasn't stopped the decline. Each year, an estimated 1.1 million pounds (500 metric tons) of poached elephant are shipped from Africa, mostly to Asia.

For the past two decades, Wasser has fixated on a few key questions: "Where is most of the ivory being poached, who is moving it, and how many people are they?"

He works with wildlife authorities in Kenya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and elsewhere, who contact him after they intercept ivory shipments. He flies to the countries to take small samples of tusks to analyze the DNA. He has now amassed samples from the tusks of more than 4,300 elephants trafficked out of Africa between 1995 and today.

DNA analysis of elephant ivory reveals trafficking networks
Two young elephants play in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. According to a report released on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

"That's an amazing, remarkable data set," said Princeton University biologist Robert Pringle, who was not involved in the study. With such data, "it becomes possible to spot connections and make strong inferences," he said.

In 2004, Wasser demonstrated that DNA from elephant tusks and dung could be used to pinpoint their home location to within a few hundred miles. In 2018, he recognized that finding identical DNA in tusks from two different ivory seizures meant they were harvested from the same animal – and likely trafficked by the same poaching network.

The new research expands that approach to identify DNA belonging to elephant parents and offspring, as well as siblings—and led to the discovery that only a very few criminal groups are behind most of the ivory trafficking in Africa.

Because female elephants remain in the same family group their whole life, and most males don't travel too far from their family herd, the researchers hypothesize that tusks from close family members are likely to have been poached at the same time, or by the same operators.

DNA analysis of elephant ivory reveals trafficking networks
Thai customs officials display seized ivory originating from Nigeria and destined for China, during a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. According to a report released on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File

Such genetic links can provide a blueprint for wildlife authorities seeking other evidence – cell phone records, , shipping documents and financial statements – to link different ivory shipments.

Previously when an ivory shipment was intercepted, the one seizure wouldn't allow authorities to identify the organization behind the crime, said Special Agent John Brown III of the Office of Homeland Security Investigations, who has worked on environmental crimes for 25 years.

But the scientists' work identifying DNA links can "alert us to the connections between individual seizures," said Brown, who is also a co-author. "This has definitely been the backbone of multiple multinational investigations that are still ongoing," he said.

They identified several poaching hotspots, including regions of Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Gabon and Republic of Congo. Tusks are often moved to warehouses in another location to be combined with other contraband in shipping containers, then moved to ports. Current trafficking hubs exist in Kampala, Uganda; Mombasa, Kenya; and Lome, Togo.

DNA analysis of elephant ivory reveals trafficking networks
A herd of adult and baby elephants walks in the dawn light as the highest mountain in Africa, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, is seen in the background, in Amboseli National Park, southern Kenya on Monday Dec.17, 2012. According to a report released on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022, scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Two suspects were recently arrested as a result of one such investigation, said Wasser.

Traffickers that smuggle ivory also often move other contraband, the researchers found. A quarter of large seizures of pangolin scales – a heavily-poached anteater-like animal – are co-mingled with ivory, for instance.

"Confronting these networks is a great example of how genetics can be used for conservation purposes," said Brian Arnold, a Princeton University evolutionary biologist who was not involved in the research.


Explore further

DNA testing exposes tactics of international criminal networks trafficking elephant ivory

More information: Samuel Wasser, Elephant genotypes reveal the size and connectivity of transnational ivory traffickers, Nature Human Behaviour (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01267-6. www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01267-6
Journal information: Nature Human Behaviour

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