Ivory DNA analysis detects human trafficking networks

WASHINGTON – According to a new study, only three major criminal gangs are responsible for smuggling the vast majority of ivory tusks from Africa.

Researchers used DNA analysis from confiscated elephant tusks and evidence such as phone records, license plates, financial records and shipping documents to map human trafficking across the continent and better understand who is behind the crimes. The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

“If you have genetic analysis and other data, you can finally begin to understand the illegal supply chain – this is absolutely the key to countering these networks,” said Louise Shelley, who studies illegal trade at George Mason University and was not involved in the study. .

Environmentalist biologist Samuel Wasser, co-author of the study, hopes the results of the study will help law enforcement target the leaders of these networks rather than low-level poachers who can easily be replaced by criminal organizations.

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“If you can stop trading when ivory is consolidating and being exported, these are really key players,” said Wasser, who is in charge of the Center for Environmental Expertise at the University of Washington.

The elephant population in Africa is rapidly declining. From about 5 million elephants a century ago to 1.3 million in 1979, the total number of elephants in Africa is now estimated at about 415 000.

And 1989 to forbid on the international commercial trade in ivory did not stop the decline. Each year, an estimated 1.1 million pounds (500 metric tons) of poaching elephant tusks are shipped from Africa, mostly to Asia.

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Over the past two decades, Wasser has focused on several key questions: “Where does poaching involve most of the ivory, who transports it, and how many people?”

He is cooperating with wildlife conservation authorities in Kenya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and other places that contact him after they intercept ivory supplies. He flies to countries to take small tusk samples for DNA analysis. He has now collected samples from the tusks of more than 4,300 elephants exported from Africa between 1995 and today.

“It’s an amazing, wonderful data set,” said Princeton University biologist Robert Pringle, who was not involved in the study. “With such data, it will be possible to identify connections and draw strong conclusions,” he said.

In 2004, Wasser demonstrated that DNA from elephant tusks and manure could be used to locate their home to within a few hundred miles. In 2018, he acknowledged that finding the same DNA in tusks from two different ivory seizures meant they were collected from the same animal – and probably transmitted by the same poaching network.

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A new study extends this approach to the DNA identification of elephant parents and offspring, as well as siblings – and has found that only very few criminal groups are behind much of the ivory trade in Africa.

Because female elephants remain in the same family group for life, and most males do not travel too far from their family herd, researchers believe that the tusks of close family members were most likely caught by poachers at the same time or by elephants. the same operators.

Such genetic links can provide a plan for wildlife authorities looking for other evidence – cell phone records, license plates, transportation documents and financial reports – to link different supplies of ivory.

Earlier, when an ivory cargo was intercepted, one seizure prevented authorities from identifying the organization behind the crime, said Special Agent John Brown III of the Office of Homeland Security Investigations, which has been working on environmental crimes for 25 years.

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But the work of scientists to identify DNA links can “warn us about the link between individual attacks,” said Brown, who is also a co-author. “These joint efforts have certainly become the basis of many multinational investigations that are still ongoing,” he said.

They identified several poaching hotspots, including the regions of Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Tusks are often moved to warehouses elsewhere to combine them with other contraband in containers and then moved to ports. Current trade centers exist in Kampala, Uganda; Mombasa, Kenya; and Lome, Togo.

There were two suspects recently arrested as a result of one such investigation, Wasser said.

Researchers have found that traders who smuggle ivory also often move other contraband. For example, a quarter of large seizures of yangalin scales – an anteater-like animal with many poachers – are mixed with ivory.

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“Confronting these networks is a great example of how genetics can be used for conservation,” said Brian Arnold, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University who was not involved in the study.

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