Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology, explains how DNA analysis has been used to trip up crime networks that funnel ivory to buyers around the world. He says, 'When you’re following the money, you need to know the connections between all of these seizures.'

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The international trade in illegal ivory is a $4 billion business, but the criminal organizations responsible are good at covering their tracks. They conceal elephant tusks in shipments of fish parts, falsify records and smuggle their contraband through multiple countries to obscure its origin.

Now, a team of researchers at the University of Washington has found a new way to trip up the crime networks that funnel ivory to buyers around the world. By leveraging the power of DNA analysis, they were able to link multiple ivory shipments to a small number of criminal cartels operating out of ports in Africa.

The approach could provide the legal ammunition needed to go after cartel leaders, some of whom have received light sentences or been acquitted because of weak evidence, said Samuel Wasser, lead author of the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

“Most of these big criminals, when they’re finally taken down it’s for financial crimes,” said Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology. “When you’re following the money, you need to know the connections between all of these seizures, and that’s one of the real powers of this method we have developed.”

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The new work builds on more than a decade of research by the UW team, which first analyzed thousands of elephant dung samples from across Africa to document genetic diversity and distinguish different elephant populations. They then applied those results to DNA analysis of seized ivory, discovering that most of the elephants being killed by poachers came from two hotspots, one in the eastern African nation of Tanzania and another centered in the West African nation of Gabon.

While sorting through 38 large shipments of ivory seized by law enforcement between 2011 and 2015, Wasser and his colleagues also developed ways to identify pairs of tusks based on diameter; color; and the location of the gum line, where the elephant’s lip rested on the tusk. They were surprised to find more than half the tusks were orphans, missing their mates.

“It was driving me crazy,” Wasser said. “There were so many unpaired tusks.”

So he and his colleagues decided to re-examine all their ivory DNA results to see if they could track down the missing tusks. “All of a sudden the pattern was just there,” he said. “It was just amazing.”

They were able to match 26 pairs of tusks that had been separated after poaching, then shipped in different consignments to different destinations, but out of the same ports and within months of each other.

The links between shipments mean the same criminal rings must have been involved. And the fact that the ivory in the shipments had similar geographic origins implies that the criminal rings are probably working directly with poachers in specific areas, perhaps even supplying them with ammunition and other gear, Wasser said.

“It costs about $25 for a single bullet to kill an elephant,” he said. “The poachers can’t afford that.”

By examining the origin of the ivory, the separated pairs of tusks and the ports where the ivory was shipped, Wasser and his colleagues zeroed in on three main commercial networks, representing what they believe to be three major smuggling cartels. The cartels operate out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo – and also appear to collaborate on occasion.

With an estimated 40,000 elephants killed by poachers every year, there’s an urgent need for more effective law enforcement, said John Brown, a wildlife agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who has worked with Wasser and several African nations.

“The connection between multiple seizures gives us a lot more evidence to look at and data to mine as far as the financial connections and financial transactions that took place to facilitate these illegal shipments,” Brown said.

While several African countries have stepped up wildlife enforcement in recent years, there have also been high-profile disappointments. A major ivory trafficker in the country of Togo was convicted, partly due to Wasser’s DNA evidence, but sentenced to only two years in prison. A Kenyan judge recently overturned the 20-year sentence of Feisal Mohamed Ali, believed to be a kingpin in the ivory trade, after police investigators were accused of extortion and much of the evidence in the case disappeared – including seized ivory and vehicles allegedly used for shipments. However, the judge intends to reopen the case against Ali and his confederates.

The new UW analysis includes ivory seizures linked to Ali, and Wasser is optimistic that evidence will be part of the new prosecution.

“We’ve essentially provided a roadmap to follow the money,” he said. “This is going to be a tool that is going to plague these traffickers for a long time.”