The international trade in elephant ivory has been illegal since 1989, yet African elephant numbers continue to decline. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature cited ivory poaching as a primary reason for a staggering loss of about 111,000 elephants between 2005 and 2015 — leaving their total numbers at an estimated 415,000.
In a paper published Sept. 19 in the journal Science Advances, an international team led by scientists at the University of Washington reports that DNA test results of large ivory seizures made by law enforcement have linked multiple ivory shipments, over the three-year period when this trafficking reached its peak, to the same network of dealers operating out of a handful of African ports. The researchers linked these ivory shipments together after developing a rigorous sorting and DNA testing regimen for tusks in different ivory shipments. This method allowed the scientists to identify tusk pairs that had been separated and shipped in different consignments to different destinations around the world — yet had been shipped out of the same port, nearly always within 10 months of each other, with high overlap in the geographic origins of tusks in the matching shipments.
“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 lead and corresponding author Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology. “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.”
“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.”
Read the full article on UW News.