DNA testing could help identify who is killing Africa’s elephants

20 Sep 2018

African elephant cow with young calf at Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Image: EcoPrin/Shutterstock

Illegal ivory trading is still causing a decline in elephant numbers and scientists have now made a major link between multiple shipments.

The international trade in elephant ivory has been illegal since 1989, but the number of African elephants is continuing to dwindle. According to 2016 data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, poaching caused the deaths of approximately 111,000 elephants between 2005 and 2015.

A paper published by an international team of scientists in the journal Science Advances reports that DNA test results of large hauls of ivory seizures by law enforcement have linked a number of shipments. The researchers linked these shipments together after developing a sorting and DNA testing regimen for elephant tusks in different batches. Scientists were able to identify tusk pairs that had been separated and shipped in different consignments around the globe.

The study was led by the University of Washington (UW). Lead and corresponding author, Samuel Wasser, who is the director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology, said: “Now, we’ve shown that the number and location of the major networks smuggling these large shipments of ivory out of Africa are also relatively few.”

Where are the cartels?

The three largest cartels in Africa appear to be operating out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo. Out of 38 shipments analysed, the team linked 11 of them together by identifying tusk pairs that had been separated after poaching. Despite the varied destinations, the tusks had been shipped out of the same port, nearly always within 10 months of each other.

Researchers also noted high overlap in the geographic origins of the tusks in the matching shipments. Wasser said: “We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures – linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels.”

He added that the tool could help legal teams prosecute cartel leaders, some of whom have historically received light sentences. “Most of these big criminals, when they’re finally taken down, it’s for financial crimes. When you’re following the money, you need to know the connections between all of these seizures, and that’s one of the real powers of this method we have developed,” Wasser noted.

Genetic testing

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. They created a genetic reference map of elephant populations across Africa, using DNA samples extracted primarily from elephant dung. They then mapped the regions in the ivory DNA samples to the map, which helped them identify where the elephant had come from, often within about 300km.

He added: “Not only can we identify the geographic origins of the poached elephants and the number of populations represented in a seizure, but we can use the same genetic tools to link different seizures to the same underlying criminal network.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects