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African elephants intertwine their trunks, Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo: ©Art Wolfe / Art Wolfe Inc. via Science Advances.

A new study uses genetic evidence to provide a window into the shadowy network of transnational criminal groups responsible for slaughtering elephants and killing conservationists in Africa, as well as the thriving global ivory trade.

Why it matters: With up to one-tenth of the African elephant population dying at the hands of poachers each year, halting poaching is an increasingly urgent task. It has also attracted the attention of law enforcement officials in the U.S. and elsewhere who are seeking to unravel transnational criminal syndicates that trade a variety of illicit goods, from ivory to rhino horns and weapons.

The background: The ivory trade is a big business, amounting to around $4 billion annually, according to lead author Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. Knowing where most poaching occurs has failed to significantly curb the ivory trade, per Wasser. This is in part because smugglers use networks of middlemen to conceal their shipments, and then move their goods to market from ports located away from the poaching hotspots.

How they did it: For the study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, researchers first created a geographical "genetic reference map" of elephant populations across Africa, drawn from elephant dung data.

  • They then sampled 38 large ivory seizures made worldwide between 2006 and 2015, and compared them to the map to identify where the elephants came from, accurate to about 185 miles.
  • An average of 36% of the total number of tusks were sampled in each seizure.
  • They used sorting methods based on the tusks' physical characteristics, combined with DNA testing, to identify tusk pairs that had been separated and shipped to different destinations from the same port, often within less than 10 months of each other.

Doing this wasn't an obvious step, however, Wasser told Axios.

"This really happened as an epiphany. After sampling many seizures, and noting that over half the tusks were unpaired, one of the scientists in my lab that accompanied me on the last seizure we had done up to that date knocked on my door and asked: 'I wonder if any of those pairs are in other seizures we’ve sampled?'"
— Samuel Wasser, University of Washington

What they found: The study points to the existence of 3 of the largest ivory cartels in Africa, operating out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo.

  • By identifying tusk pairs that had been separated after poaching, the scientists were able to link 11 of the 38 large ivory shipments together during the 2011 to 2014 period.
  • The study's results could help law enforcement to locate and prosecute wildlife traffickers, who are frequently only charged with ties to one particular shipment, resulting in light prison sentences.

"Prosecuting them for multiple seizures has the potential of elevating their sentences to major crimes that bear much stiffer punishments," Wasser told Axios.

The bottom line: The ivory trade must be squelched in order to save African elephants, and the new study offers investigators another tool needed to crack down on transnational criminal elements responsible for the largest shipments. As Wasser says, the "small number of large kingpins" can be located by "following the tusks."

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker