Most illegal ivory comes from animals killed in two areas in Africa: Tanzania and a protected area that spans Gabon, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
The problem of elephant poaching might seem as vast and complicated as the African continent itself, but a new analysis from the University of Washington shows that the bulk of the slaughter is concentrated in just two hot spots: Tanzania in the east, and a protected ecosystem centered in Gabon in the west.
The findings can help guide efforts to crack down on the illegal ivory trade, which is responsible for the deaths of as many as 50,000 elephants a year, said lead author Sam Wasser.
“If poaching is happening everywhere, it becomes a very daunting challenge,” said Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology. “But if you look at where the killing is taking place, and we’re able to narrow it down to just two places, now you’ve got a real game changer.”
Wasser and his colleagues, including an INTERPOL expert on wildlife smuggling, analyzed DNA from tusks and ivory products from 28 large shipments seized around the world between 1996 and 2014. One haul confiscated in Malaysia contained ivory from at least 1,200 elephants.
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To figure out where the elephants were killed, the researchers compared DNA extracted from the ivory to a reference map of genetic signatures developed at the UW through painstaking analysis of thousands of samples of elephant dung and hair collected across Africa. That work showed clear genetic distinctions between elephants from different regions, allowing the scientists to identify an individual’s home range within 60 to 180 miles.
“You can get it down to a specific park very easily,” Wasser said.
While it’s no secret that Tanzania and parts of Western Africa are plagued by poachers, Wasser was surprised by the results of the new analysis, published in the June 18 issue of Science.
Since 2006, more than 85 percent of ivory from elephants that inhabit Africa’s savannas came from either Tanzania or northern Mozambique. For forest-dwelling elephants, more than 85 percent of the killing was concentrated in the Tridom protected ecosystem and an adjacent reserve, which collectively span portions of Gabon, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
“It’s really staggering,” Wasser said. “This is going to make it much more difficult for Tanzania, in particular, to deny the magnitude of the problem.”
Tanzania has repeatedly petitioned the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to ease required protections for its elephant populations and allow the country to sell large stockpiles of ivory. Tanzanian government officials also denied recent reports of a precipitous drop in elephant numbers in the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem, a complex of parks fingered by Wasser’s DNA analysis as a hot spot for elephant slaughter.
Many new anti-poaching efforts focus on reducing demand from customers, mainly in China. But changing behavior takes a long time, which Africa’s elephants may not have, Wasser said.
With a total population of 500,000 or fewer, the species can’t continue to absorb 10 percent losses from poaching each year. “You have to stop the killing, or you are going to have irreversible damage in a very short time period,” Wasser said.
In the short term, the answer is more effective enforcement — and there’s evidence it works. When nearly all ivory trade was first banned in 1989, international donors and African nations stepped up with money and patrols and poaching plummeted. But funding dried up within a few years, and the problem roared back.
Zambia, which Wasser and his team identified as a poaching hot spot in the early to mid-2000s, clamped down effectively for several years. But the most recent ivory seizures show that the problem has flared again there.
A poacher can earn $3,000 for one set of elephant tusks — more than a year’s salary for many Africans, said co-author Bill Clark, of INTERPOL’S environmental-crime unit. Carved into rings, signature seals and cigarette holders, those same tusks can retail for $60,000 in Asian markets.
Clark estimates the global ivory market at about $3 billion a year.
Sales of ivory are also used to funnel money to terrorist or insurgent groups.
“There have been abundant indicators of ivory being used to finance various militant groups, as well as organized crime,” Clark said. “And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”
In a commentary published along with the UW study, biologist Rus Hoelzel, of Durham University in the United Kingdom, pointed out that DNA analysis is continuing to improve, which should make it even more useful for wildlife management in the coming years.
In the past, Wasser and his team often had a hard time persuading countries to provide ivory samples for analysis. But since 2013, when wildlife-trade regulators voted to require forensic tests, the UW scientists have been granted access to nearly 90 percent of ivory seizures.
So if poachers shift to different areas, they should be able to see the changes quickly, Wasser said.
The DNA work is also shedding light on the way ivory cartels operate, Clark said. One seized cache combined ivory from both African coasts, indicating that the groups are somehow linked. And the fact that ivory is hardly ever shipped out of Africa from the country where the elephants were killed reveals the need for sophisticated transport networks and officials willing to look the other way.
Annual ivory seizures range between 35 and 50 tons, Clark said. But that represents only about a tenth of what’s being trafficked.
The UW work is partly funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who is also bankrolling the first major census of elephants across Africa. And in his own backyard, Allen is the deep pocket behind Initiative 1401, which would make it a crime to sell or trade elephant ivory, shark fins and other exotic-animal parts in Washington.