Scientists have used DNA collected from smuggled ivory shipments to identify three organised groups of criminals responsible for trafficking in ivory at the height of the recent African elephant poaching crisis between 2011 and 2014.
The researchers, led by Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington, United States, said in paper published in the scientific journal Science Advances that they had been able to trace some of the smuggled ivory and link it to gangs based in Kenya, Togo and Uganda.
“We combine DNA-based sample matching and geographic assignment of tusks to show that the two tusks from the same elephant are often shipped by the same trafficker in separate large consignments of ivory,” the scientist said in their research paper.
“The paired shipments occur close in time from the same initial place of export and have high overlap in the geographic origins of their tusks. Collectively, these paired shipments form a linked chain that reflects the sizes, interconnectedness, and places of operation of Africa’s largest ivory smuggling cartels.”
Each cartel was identified by a chain of multiple linked seizures exported or about to be exported out of Africa from the same port, with the two matched seizures in any given link occurring close in time and composed of tusks largely derived from the same poaching locale.
The researchers noted that targeting such cartels could have a major direct impact on combating the illegal ivory trade by preventing contraband from transiting out of Africa before it becomes far more diffuse and expensive to trace.
High overlap in the genetically identified geographic origins of the ivory in the matched seizures, along with the convergence of large quantities of ivory to the same cartels over time, also implies a strong link between the cartels and the poaching hotspots where those elephants were killed.
Targeting these cartels could also directly reduce the rapid loss of wildlife. The tools described in the paper may further provide information that can help law enforcement target other forms of contraband to the extent that these major ivory cartels are also involved in smuggling other wildlife products.
The trafficker implicated the in two seizures in Togo and a six-tonne ivory seizure in Malaysia was convicted in August 2013. The ivory seizure in Togo was partly from genetic evidence provided by the researchers. He received a jail term of two years, but the sentence could have been much stiffer had the additional findings in the report been available at the time of his prosecution.
Another major trafficker was similarly convicted for one seizure in Kenya in June 2014, but the report potentially connects him to many others. He was subsequently freed on appeal after the court upheld claims of evidence tampering by the police.
A suspect was in custody in Uganda at the time the report was released. He was linked to one of the ivory seizures in Uganda and is believed to a member of a network of traffickers based in Entebbe.