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<em>Science</em>: DNA from Illegal Ivory Points to Poaching Hotspots in Africa

New genetic tools that trace confiscated ivory back to the elephant populations from which it came might help law enforcement agencies crack down on poaching, researchers say.

The technology has already identified two areas in Africa that have been fueling the world's illegal ivory trade since about 2006 — and researchers working with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) are hoping to improve the tools in order to mount more coordinated international responses in the future.

African ivory has come to represent a major part of the illegal wildlife trade — now the world's fourth largest transnational organized crime — and poaching rates have risen to levels that threaten African populations with extinction, according to researchers.

Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues developed the DNA forensics technique and used it to analyze 28 large ivory seizures, each of which contained half a ton of tusks or more. Their results, which expose two elephant poaching hotspots in Africa, are freely available in the 19 June issue of Science.

Africa contains about 470,000 elephants, but nearly 50,000 are killed each year for their tusks. The ivory is carved into trinkets and sold in markets like this one in Central Africa. | (top) Art Wolfe / (bottom) Karl Ammann

Until 2006, most of the tusks from savanna elephants came from Zambia and most forest elephant ivory originated in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the researchers. But, for the past nine years or so, the majority of savanna elephant ivory has come from Tanzania and Mozambique while most forest elephant tusks have originated in Gabon, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, they say.

"We're currently losing an estimated 50,000 African elephants a year to poaching and there are only about 470,000 elephants remaining in the population," said Wasser during a 17 June press teleconference. "That's about a tenth of the population being lost each year."

"It's very important to reduce this [illegal ivory] trade, but one of the big problems with stopping demand is that it's simply too slow," Wasser explained. "We need to do that in combination with other, more urgent tactics that are primarily focused on stopping the killing of the elephants."

The researchers sampled DNA from the dung of 1,350 savanna and forest elephants from 71 different locations across 29 African countries and used their findings to create a map of elephant populations for the entire continent.

Then, working with INTERPOL, Wasser and his team analyzed DNA from illegal ivory that was seized between 1996 and 2014 and matched it to specific elephant populations on their map. Their results show that about 96% of the confiscated ivory originated from just four geographical areas during this period.

Ivory poachers may kill other animals, such as this baby gorilla (top), when they illegally hunt elephants. | Karl Ammann

The hotspots probably won't stay hot for too long, though. This new data suggest that poachers move on to new pastures soon after such hotspots are identified by authorities, in part because the illicit trade is so lucrative.

"Ivory is used mostly for small items, such as signature seals, jewelry, cigarette holders, and other items commonly weighing about 30 grams," explained Bill Clark, a coordinator from INTERPOL, during the teleconference. "A typical piece of ivory in Africa will sell for about 300 U.S. dollars per kilogram. So one elephant with, perhaps, 10 kilograms of ivory on it is worth about 3,000 dollars for a poacher."

To Clark and other law enforcement officials tasked with protecting vulnerable species, the advance in DNA forensics represents a powerful new resource to tackle a massive international enterprise.

"It's an industry that has supply and demand infrastructure, transport, freight forwarding, factories, middlemen — all of the elements of any major commodity industry, including banking," said Clark. "Do the math…and it goes into billions and billions of dollars. All of that money has to be laundered through illegal banking systems."

"Wasser's work with DNA is helping us to understand the structure and dynamics of the transnational organized crime syndicates behind it," said Clark. "It's helping us to establish investigative priorities and to plan our efforts."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Karl Ammann]