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."

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