Today, there are about 415,000 elephants in Africa. A century ago, that number was close to 5 million. Conservationists estimate that the international ivory trade leads to about 50,000 elephants being killed each year. If poaching continues at this rate, elephants may go extinct in the near future.
Mapping the illegal ivory trade
To help put a stop to this, scientists have started to map the illegal ivory trade by conducting thousands of DNA tests on samples collected by authorities. By combining DNA data with forensic evidence, researchers aim to chart a comprehensive map of trafficking operations in Africa and beyond.
As part of the study, researchers are working together with the Interpol Working Group on Wildlife Crime. They have conducted DNA tests on 4,320 elephant tusks from 49 ivory confiscations, rounding up a total of 111 tons. The samples come from ivory seizures in 12 countries across Africa, from 2002 to 2019, according to the study, published in Nature Human Behavior.
Combining DNA samples with existing forensic evidence
By combining DNA samples with forensic evidence such as phone records, license plates, financial records, and shipping documents, the researchers aim to map and trace what they call “transnational criminal organization” or TCOs, reports euronews.
“These transnational criminal organizations we’re trying to get — they are the key. Because once the ivory leaves their hands and gets out of Africa, it becomes so difficult to trace,” says co-author Professor Samuel Wasser, from the University of Washington.
Network analyses as part of the study indicate that there are only three major criminal groups responsible for smuggling the vast majority of elephant ivory out of Africa. The research has also revealed key locations where poaching takes place, where the tusks are loaded in shipping containers, and how they travel to port cities via trucks or rail.
“If you’re looking simply at that one seizure, you only have one block of physical evidence … you wouldn’t necessarily identify a transnational criminal organization behind that trade. But the scientists’ work identifying DNA links can alert us to the connections between individual seizures,” says Special Agent John Brown III of the Office of Homeland Security Investigations, who is also a co-author of the paper.
The ultimate goal is to disrupt the ivory trade at its root by targeting these major criminal organizations rather than going for low-level poachers who are typically quickly replaced by higher-ranking members of the networks.