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DNA Scientists Target New Regions, Animals in International Poaching

Using genetic data gleaned from illegally sold tusks, scientists have identified the major sites of African elephant killing that supply ivory to massive international criminal organizations. A year after one such study made headlines, the researchers hope to apply their techniques to find out how other animals are illegally poached and sold.

Wildlife crime is the fourth largest type of transnational crime, with illegal ivory trade making up about $3 billion of the $20 billion generated by wildlife crime annually, said University of Washington conservation biologist Samuel Wasser at a 14 February press briefing at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Wasser and his colleagues published a genetic analysis in the journal Science last June showing that the majority of large elephant tusk seizures made by law enforcement have come from just two poaching hotspots: a forest elephant site on the border of Gabon and the Congo, and savanna elephant sites in Tanzania. The scientists are able to identify these poaching spots by matching DNA from elephant populations in these areas with DNA extracted from the seized tusks.


From left, Samuel Wasser, Hyeon Jeong Kim, William Clark, and Alan Thorton discuss the illegal wildlife trade in a press conference at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Juan David Romero

Since the June study, Wasser has analyzed another dozen large tusk seizures, finding “overall identical” patterns of poaching. His team has also tried to establish links between the seizures by matching tusk pairs from the same elephants. This analysis led them to discover that the tusks “are very young ivory” that moves quickly from the poaching sites and that nearly all of the tusks move through the port city of Mombasa in Kenya. 

“Not only have we showed that the number of kingpins are fairly limited, because the hotspots are very few,” Wasser said, “but also we’re showing that there are probably one or two major dealers that are moving all of this ivory out of Mombasa.”

Hyeon Jeong Kim, a graduate student of Wasser’s at the University of Washington, wants to apply this type of genetic crime solving to a less charismatic animal also highly valued by poachers: the pangolin, or scaly anteater. Pangolins are found in 48 countries, and are hunted for their meat and their scales, which some people consider a cure for everything from cancer to acne. She said there is no evidence that the scales have medicinal value.

Kim said some pangolin seizures rival the largest ivory seizures ever seen. “Just last year, we saw 11.5 tons of pangolin meat being seized in China, which is over 2600 animals.”

Pangolins are small and nocturnal, making it difficult to estimate how many of them are left in any given population. Scientists studying pangolin seizures want to know “where they are coming from, and how quickly are they being decimated around the world,” Kim said. She is working with pangolin researchers around the world to build up a “reference library” of pangolin genes from around the world, and she said these data might be ready within a year to help track poachers.

William Clark, a U.S. liaison to Kenya Wildlife Service and former environmental crime consultant at INTERPOL, said DNA analysis was a multifaceted tool in wildlife law enforcement, particularly praising its ability to “help identify the size, structure, and dynamics of criminal syndicates” as seen with Wasser’s studies of the ivory trade.

The briefing participants also discussed which aspects of the illegal ivory trade would benefit from increased scrutiny to keep more elephants alive. Wasser maintained that it would be important to apply “purse string” pressure on ivory’s source countries, and that countries should withhold aid to countries such as Tanzania until they brought elephant poaching under control.

Allan Thornton, the president of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), singled out the market end of the trade, particularly in Japan. He said Japan has more than 8000 ivory retailers, including a massive online market at sites such as Yahoo!Japan. Thornton said more than 80% of Japanese ivory traders agreed to buy or sell unregulated tusks or offer false proof of a tusk’s regulation to the Japanese government, during recent undercover operations conducted by EIA investigators.