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New DNA test of illegal ivory can track poachers responsible

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, ivory poaching was responsible for the loss of 111,000 elephants between 2005 and 2015.

Even though the trade of elephant ivory has been illegal since 1989, it remains a major problem for elephant conservation today and there are just 415,000 African elephants left on the continent.

Elephants face many threats and stressors including habitat degradation, interference from human activities such as tourism, and poaching, which has been one of the biggest drivers of population declines through the years.

Even when large shipments of illegal ivory are seized by government operations, it can be difficult to track the ivory back to the regions it came from, where it was shipped from, and what ivory cartels are responsible.

Researchers from the University of Washington developed a new method that could help with quickly sorting through large-scale ivory shipments and identifying both where the ivory came from and the poachers involved using the DNA in the ivory.

A study detailing the ivory DNA test method was published in the journal Science Advances, and by using this method, the researchers were able to pair ivory tusks together and link multiple ivory shipments over a three-year period to a network of dealers operating out of just a few African ports.

“Our prior work on DNA testing of illegal ivory shipments showed that the major elephant ‘poaching hotspots’ in Africa were relatively few in number,” said Samuel Wasser, the lead and corresponding author. “Now, we’ve shown that the number and location of the major networks smuggling these large shipments of ivory out of Africa are also relatively few.”

Large ivory shipments are the norm in the illegal ivory trade, but by using DNA to link pairs of tusks together from the elephant it came from, it’s easier to link different shipments together and trace them back to the cartels responsible.

The study builds on previous DNA testing work that Wasser and a team of researchers had previously developed that allowed them to identify what populations of African elephants were being targeted by poachers.

Using DNA samples from elephant dung, the researchers created a genetic reference map. Testing elephant tusks in ivory seizures, the researchers were able to cross-reference the DNA with the map and identify which regions the elephant that the tusk belonged to came from.

“We have neither the time nor the money to collect samples and extract DNA from every tusk in a shipment,” said Wasser. “We needed to find a way to sample only a fraction of the tusks in a shipment, but that method also needed to let us get a glimpse at the diversity of poached elephants within that shipment.”

The researchers identified pairs in large ivory seizures by sorting tusks based on diameter, color, and gum line (where the lip rested on the tusk).

After DNA testing of tusks from 38 large ivory consignments, the researchers were able to match up 26 pairs of tusks from 11 different shipments.

The researchers were then able to trace the shipments back to the three largest ivory cartels in Africa operating out of Kenya, Uganda, Togo.

“We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures — linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels,” said Wasser. “It is an investigative tool to help officials track these networks and collect evidence for criminal cases.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Center for Conservation Biology/University of Washington

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