DNA of tusks reveals a chain of illegal ivory sales

(ORDO NEWS) — DNA testing of confiscated shipments of ivory, which reveals family ties between African elephants killed for hunting their tusks, helps uncover poaching areas and smuggling networks. The illegal trade continues to destroy the population of the largest land animal on Earth.

“Combining these results with the evidence collected by our law enforcement officers makes it possible to trace the connections of a huge criminal network,” the author of the study said.

Researchers said on Monday they had conducted DNA tests on 4,320 ivory tusks from 49 seized shipments of ivory totaling 111 tons in 12 African countries from 2002 to 2019. The results may help uncover the transnational criminal organizations behind the trafficking and provide more opportunities for prosecution.

“Combining these results with the evidence gathered by our law enforcement officers makes it possible to trace the connections of a huge criminal network,” said University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser, lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Most of the ivory is exported in large quantities – up to 10 tons each. They are transported by sea and hidden among legal exports that cross the oceans on container ships.

DNA testing has shown that a single shipment most often contained at least two tusks from the same elephant, or, more commonly, tusks from close relatives found in different containers shipped to the same port.

Wasser mentioned that the largest amount of ivory is currently being smuggled out of Uganda via the Mombasa seaport, with ports in Kenya and Nigeria often used as well. Vasser noted that the ports through which the smugglers worked changed over time.

The researchers used DNA from elephant feces collected across Africa to compile a genetic reference map of various populations. Thus, new testing allowed them to determine the geographic location of poaching, as well as link the seized parties to the same transnational criminal organizations.


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