A DNA test detects the scale of ivory trade networks

Ivory trafficking is big business. Environmentalists are evaluating that poachers kill about 55 African elephants a day. But while experts believe that businesses are run by only a few organizations, finding evidence to help bring the perpetrators to justice is difficult. DNA sequencing to reflect family relationships between elephants whose tusks have been confiscated may help build cases against smugglers (Nat. Hmm. Behavior. 2022, DOI: 10.1038 / s41562-021-01267-6).

Samuel K. Wasser, co-executive director of the Center for Forensic Science at the University of Washington, led the new work. Wasser has been tracking these networks with DNA for many years, and he and his colleagues have previously shown that the tusks of the same elephant were separated and smuggled in different supplies (Sciences. Adv. 2018, DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.aat0625). Researchers have now expanded their approach to finding close family ties between tusks to identify parents, offspring and siblings.

Wasser’s team sequenced more than 4,000 elephant tusks from 49 ivory seizures that occurred between 2002 and 2019. “When we did it, it was amazing,” Wasser says. “We had dozens of cargoes that were closely linked by several family coincidences.” The researchers found close family members represented in the samples in supplies even with a difference in age. According to Wasser, this shows that the same criminal organizations have been operating for decades, and poachers are targeting the same population year after year.

Despite the global ban on the ivory trade, which has been in place since 1990, the illegal sale of ivory continues. Traffic, the non-governmental organization that manages the Elephant Trade Information System, a database of seizures of ivory and other elephant products, says tracking and understanding trade is challenging because supplies make multiple stops on the way to destinations around the world. Experts estimate that only about 10% of ivory is confiscated each year by law enforcement.

“Global efforts to combat these illegal crimes are paramount to protecting our environment,” said John Brown III, a criminal investigator with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Internal Security Investigation. He collaborated with Wasser and his team. Once criminals get into a container and onto a ship, the chances of being caught are slim, he says.

Brown has worked on environmental crime for over 25 years with a focus on transnational organized crime in Africa and Southeast Asia. He says only three to five organizations are believed to dominate the trade, but evidence is needed to link confiscations made in different jurisdictions to help law enforcement hand down sentences. If countries don’t cooperate, Wasser says, “we’re just dealing with an unpleasant situation”.

In November, Vaser’s DNA sequencing helped identify a wildlife trafficking network and forced the Congolese authorities to confiscate ivory and lizard scales worth about $ 3.5 million. There were two men in the same operation arrested in the US and accused by the Federal Grand Jury on charges of trading in ivory and rhino horn horns. A DNA test detects the scale of ivory trade networks

Back to top button