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DNA tracing of related elephants reveals illegal ivory trafficking networks

Researchers used genetic testing on ivory shipments seized by law enforcement and were able to trace the international criminal network that ships the ivory from Africa.

The team tested more than 4,000 elephant tusks from 49 different seizures, made between 2002 and 2019, in 12 different African countries. The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The study establishes family links between elephants that are poached for their ivory tusks and reveals poaching and shipping practices and the interdependence of traffickers.

This type of DNA detective work can reveal the tactics employed by transnational criminal organizations, believes the research team, made up of scientists and special agents from the US Department of Homeland Security. These illicit organizations have been operating outside Africa for decades, leading to the significant decline of thousands of elephants in recent years, according to the study.

“These methods show us that a handful of networks are behind the majority of smuggled ivory, and that the connections between these networks run deeper than even our previous research has shown,” said the study’s lead author, Samuel Wasser, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. and co-executive director of the Center for Environmental Forensic Science, in a statement.

Connecting Elephant Family Members

Linking separate ivory seizures made in ports thousands of miles apart can create a trail of evidence and strengthen the prosecution of those arrested for poaching and tusk smuggling.

This study builds on previous work, published by Wasser and colleagues in 2018, which showed that tusks from the same elephant were often separated and smuggled into different shipments before being seized. These identifications linked the networks of traffickers who smuggled ivory from three African port cities to Kenya, Uganda and Togo.

The new research expanded DNA analysis to find elephants that were related in some way, including parents, offspring and siblings. Making connections between elephant families, rather than trying to match individual tusks, has helped researchers understand the extent of the trafficking network.

The three networks established in the 2018 study “are involved in significantly more crises and are more connected to each other than previously discovered,” according to the new paper.

“If you’re trying to match a defense to its pair, you’re unlikely to find a match. But identifying close relatives will be a much more common occurrence and may link more ivory seizures to the same smuggling networks,” Wasser says.

Special Agent John Brown, study co-author and criminal investigator with US Homeland Security Investigations, has worked on environmental crime issues for more than 25 years. The study’s forensic analysis can provide “a roadmap for large-scale, multinational collaborative investigations,” Brown said.

Target populations

The tusks came from both forest and savannah elephants. Forest elephants make up about 6% of the remaining African elephant population and live in the rainforests of West Africa and the Congo Basin. According to tusk data from seizures, tusks were heavily poached in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

DNA tests on elephant tusks reveal

Savannah elephants roam grassy plains and scrub in West and Central Africa and most of East and Southern Africa. Many of their tusks have been poached in Tanzania, northern Mozambique and southern Kenya, including recently in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in southern Africa.

Then the tusks were shipped from ports in different countries. But the fact that separate tusks are still shipped from the same ports helped researchers determine that there were fewer networks carrying massive ivory shipments than previously thought, Wasser said.

In elephant populations, females tend to stay in the same family group and males do not travel very far even when migrating. The genetic link between the tusks showed how poachers targeted specific populations. Dozens of submissions were found to have close family ties, some of which spanned years.

“The identification of close relatives indicates that the poachers likely return to the same populations repeatedly – year after year – and the tusks are then acquired and smuggled out of Africa on container ships by the same criminal network” , Wasser said.

“This criminal strategy makes it much more difficult for authorities to track and seize these shipments due to the immense pressure they are under to move large volumes of containers quickly through ports.”

Hold traffickers accountable

A small group of smuggling rings are most likely to be responsible for large shipments of ivory, which can move massive amounts of tusks onto container ships. Tusk genetic data has linked seizures from Ivory Coast along the Atlantic Ocean to Mozambique bordering the Indian Ocean.

“There has been a lot of movement to make the sale of ivory illegal in many countries around the world,” Wasser said. “However, it hasn’t had a big impact on the types of trades that we’re talking about when we get these big seizures. And when I say big seizure, it’s a minimum size of half a ton and that can go up to 10 tons or more.”

The study’s 17-year span also showed how the networks moved to different ports over time, moving from Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda to Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Criminals are often tied to a single ivory shipment seizure, or “one block of physical evidence,” Brown said. But tracking this kind of data could help prosecutors make connections and ensure criminals are held accountable for everything they’ve done.

“Species extinction and ecological collapse due to wildlife trafficking can have lasting, irreversible and catastrophic impacts on our global community as a whole,” Brown said. “Thus, the global effort to combat these illicit crimes is paramount to protecting our environment.”


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Sara Adm

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