New weapons in the fight against the ivory trade

Image Credit: Yathin S Krishnappa

Ivory trading has been illegal since 1989, but 40,000 elephants die each year because of this multibillion dollar industry. Could science end the ivory trade? With a recently published paper, Samuel Wasser and his team bring us one step closer. 

Ivory smuggling works in a pyramid-shaped hierarchy. At the base are poachers, who hunt elephants and sell the tusks to a series of middlemen. As the ivory progresses up the pyramid, it is amassed, to be shipped by cartels in batches of several metric tonnes. 

Efforts to stop the ivory trade have been unsuccessful. Targeting the base of the pyramid is pointless, because poachers operate in large areas they know well, and if arrested, can only be prosecuted for what they are caught with. In addition, there are always more poachers are ready to take their place. 

Targeting the top – the cartels, who fund the operations – is also tricky. Like the poachers, traffickers can only be prosecuted for the ivory they are caught with, and tend to get away with short sentences.

Samuel Wasser and his team have studied how to track and link ivory shipments through DNA. They noticed that half of the tusks in each shipment were unpaired. Since both tusks in a pair are likely to be bought by the same cartel, finding the twin of the orphan tusks would link two shipments together. The DNA also indicates which population of elephants was poached, and in this way, allows the whole operation to be to mapped out geographically.

The team had access to 38 seizures of ivory, found around the world between 2006 and 2015. In each lot, they visually matched pairs of tusks, excluded one tusk from each pair, then randomly chose one third of the tusks to analyse. In this way, they matched up 26 pairs of tusks, which was enough to establish that the bulk of ivory smuggling was the work of three major cartels, each shipping out of a different port: Mombasa (Kenya), Entebbe (Uganda) and Lomé (Togo). 

Linking shipments allows law enforcement to prosecute traffickers for multiple seizures, and to charge them for major transnational crimes, with appropriate sentences. It also gives us a clear picture of the whole trafficking pyramid. As it is well established, the pyramid will also be slow to change, so recent smuggling can predict future poaching. By targeting both the top of the pyramid and its base, this breakthrough may enable us to topple the system, once and for all. 


This article was written by Helena Cornu and edited by James Hitchen.

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