UW biologist Sam Wasser on tracking illegal ivory through DNA

Christopher Davidson
September 22, 2018

The study was led by Samuel Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington.

Wasser and his team had previously worked on DNA testing of large ivory shipments to identify what populations of African elephants were most targeted by poachers. In addition, by genetically matching tusks from the same elephant that were in separated and smuggled out in different shipments, the DNA tests can also link separate shipments to the same dealers. Often, one was missing.

The team analyzed approximately 36 percent of the tusks among each of the 38 biggest assortments seized by authorities worldwide between 2006 and 2015, according to the researchers. That suggested that the same major trafficking cartel was responsible for transporting both the shipments with the matching tusks.

They found that nearly all of the ivory was coming from four regions in Africa, and that savannah elephant tusks were coming nearly exclusively from Tanzania and Mozambique.

The breakthrough identified what appears to be a trio of cartels operating out of Kenya, Uganda and Togo - and could save thousands of elephants from being hunted for their tusks.

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.

"We found what we believe to be three of the largest ivory cartels moving ivory out of Africa, and we also found that there are links between [the cartels]".

"There is so much information in an ivory seizure - so much more than what a traditional investigation can uncover", Wasser said.

Chief among them is ivory "kingpin" Feisal Mohamed Ali, a Kenyan national who had his 20-year jail term overturned earlier this year by a judge who cited "gaps" in the evidence against him.

The global trade in elephant ivory has been illegal since 1989, but the number of African elephants is continuing to dwindle. "The links we described aided in Feisal's conviction in Mombasa almost two years ago when he received a 20-year prison sentence", Wasser said. The crime boss appealed and was acquitted but Wasser hopes data from the new research will strengthen the case against Faisal and his co-conspirators.

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"Right now we're estimating that there are about 40,000 elephants being killed a year and there's only 400,000 left in Africa so that's one-tenth of the population a year", Wasser said.

Plus, it's helping take down violent criminal gangs who also have links to the narcotics trade and to extremist groups such as ISIS, Brown and Wasser said.

"We need something really urgent that gets in there and really stops the trade in its tracks", he said, adding that he hopes his genomic approach will be part that solution.

John Brown, special agent in the US Department of Homeland Security and country representative for HSI Nairobi, said the DNA analysis has been "important" in the pursuit of multiple ongoing investigations, though he declined to go into further detail.

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

"Dr. Wasser's lab has provided hard evidence to identify, dismantle and disrupt criminal organizations behind illicit trade in wildlife", Brown said.

Trade in ivory was banned in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Smugglers often try to evade detection by shipping ivory out of a different country than where it was poached. 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.

Fundamentally, Wasser said, addressing the demand side takes more time than conservationists have to protect elephants.

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