Since 2004, scientists at the University of Washington have used DNA to help uncover criminal networks behind the trafficking of elephant ivory.
And like the criminals they chase, the researchers regularly update their tactics. In a study released Monday, researchers from the UW Center for Environmental Forensic Science showcased their latest approach to testing ivory DNA, assessing 49 ivory seizures made in Africa between 2002 and 2019.
In their previous studies, the researchers used DNA testing to match tusks from the same elephant. In the new study they extend their approach to identify tusks from close relatives, like siblings and parent-sibling pairs.
The findings reveal the familial relationships among elephant tusks in different seizures, suggesting that a few big, interconnected traffickers control a majority of the trade.
The collaboration between the UW and law enforcement “has been the backbone of multiple multinational collaborative investigations that are still ongoing,” said John E. Brown III, a special agent at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, in a press conference.
Tusks routinely end up shipped in cargo containers from Africa to Southeast Asia, often with other illegally trafficked goods like lumber or pangolin scales, which are sold in remedies. The tusks from a single animal or family can end up in different seized shipments, an often-seen pattern that suggests a similar criminal origin.
The new approach enables the researchers to better establish if tusks from different seizures originate from related elephants living in proximity. The DNA data along with other evidence, such as port of shipment, can help investigators identify the traffickers.
“What we’re trying to do is to show the connectivity so that prosecutors start trying these criminals for the totality of their crimes” and not just one shipment, said Samuel Wasser, director of the center. By tracking close relatives, the researchers generated a more accurate map connecting sites of elephant poaching and seized shipments.
“There could be as few as three big criminal organizations that are involved, but then there are some smaller ones too,” said Wasser.
The new data also shows how smuggling networks shift to using different ports. In West Africa, for instance, smugglers shifted from Togo to Nigeria.
DNA evidence from the center led to the arrest of two men in Edmonds, Wash. last November. The men, who were from the Congo, were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy, money laundering, smuggling and other crimes related to trafficking elephant ivory and white rhinoceros horn. After the arrest, authorities in the Congo seized more than 2,000 pounds of ivory and 75 tons of pangolin scales, worth approximately $3.5 million.
Wasser said that the demand is likely driven by buyers hoarding elephant ivory. “What we really believe is that there are entrepreneurs that are buying these whole tusks and they’re actually stockpiling them,” he said. “It sounds horrible, but they may be waiting for elephants to go extinct. And then they’re holding all of the ivory and they are all of a sudden able to make a fortune.”
Wasser was first author on the study, which also involved Brown, other UW scientists, and researchers in Kenya, the University of Michigan and Singapore.
About 100,000 African elephants were lost between 2007 and 2015, largely through poaching.