DNA tests on elephant tusks expose ‘three major export cartels operating in Africa’

Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-20 10:00:30-04

A DNA sampling technique on elephant tusks has helped expose three of Africa’s ivory trafficking rings, a new study says.

Scientists matched information from DNA samples of elephant tusks taken from multiple shipments to their port of shipment to expose the smuggling cartels operating on the continent.

In the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and his team sampled 38 large ivory shipments seized around the world between 2006 to 2014.

They genetically matched some pairs of tusks that had been separated before they were shipped to different locations around the world, revealing insights about their networks.

The matched samples were found in shipments that originated from Mombasa port in Kenya and had passed through Uganda, two of East Africa’s poaching hotspots. In Togo, samples of ivory seizures made in 2014 were matched to a large shipment in Malaysia, the study said.

“We identified three major export cartels operating in Africa between 2011 and 2014,” Wasser’s team said in the study.

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.

“Methods that can connect individual traffickers to multiple large seizures have the potential to elevate their charges to major transnational crimes, simultaneously increasing the severity of their sentences,” the authors wrote.

Around 30,000 elephants are slaughtered every year in Africa to satisfy international demand for ivory, the WWF said in a statement. Ivory products can be found in markets around Africa and Asia, and even in the US and Europe, the international NGO says

“Targeting the major export cartels could thus provide some of the most direct ways to police this illegal trade and stop the killing. We use genetic methods to determine the number, scale, and location of Africa’s major ivory export cartels as well as their connection to in-country poaching hotspots,” the study said.