Elephants Reach Beyond the Grave to Help Stop Poaching

New DNA sleuthing reveals wildlife traffickers are obtaining most ivory from two hot spots in Africa.

(Photo: University of Washington Office of News/Flickr)

Jun 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Illegal ivory shipments are being seized at ports and airfields all over Africa, but scientists have discovered that the origins of those tusks are not so widespread.

Thanks to a decade’s worth of DNA testing, researchers at the University of Washington, in collaboration with Interpol, have identified two poaching hot spots as the source of ivory obtained by the largest wildlife crime syndicates.

Those locations include portions of Tanzania, Mozambique, Gabon, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’re feeding so much ivory into the black market that the crimes couldn’t be committed without some high-level cooperation by government officials in those countries, according to Sam Wasser, the study’s lead author and a conservation biology professor at the University of Washington.

“This is the hardest evidence I have seen that this is a problem of far greater magnitude than anyone appreciated and could not have taken place without corruption,” Wasser said Wednesday during a press conference.

“That doesn’t mean there is not smaller bits of poaching occurring across Africa, and in fact, there is,” Wasser said. “But by being able to say that these came from just a couple of areas means that we can target those areas much more efficiently with law enforcement and really put tremendous energy into stopping the major poaching related mortality of elephants in Africa.”

Elephants inspect a tusk of one of their poached brethren. (Photo: Karl Ammann)

In the study, published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers looked at 28 large ivory seizures between 1996 and 2014 at various ports and airports around the world. “Large” seizures were anything more than a half ton of ivory with a black market value of at least $1 million.

Such shipments make up about 70 percent of all illegal ivory seized, and the researchers believe the trafficking is conducted by large, transnational organized crime groups that can afford to lose $1 million in a single seizure.

Working off a catalog of DNA samples from elephant dung, tissue, and hair collected across Africa, Wasser developed a new way to extract DNA from ivory tusks. After gaining access to ivory from 28 ivory seizures over the past decade, his team matched the two DNA sets to determine where the seized tusks originated.

The results surprised them.

A local ivory market in Central Africa. (Photo: Karl Ammann)

The researchers traced more than 85 percent of forest elephant ivory confiscated between 2006 and 2014 to the Tridom region of Central Africa. Considered the world’s second-largest rainforest, it spans portions of Gabon, the Republic of Congo, southeastern Cameroon, and an adjacent reserve in the Central African Republic.

They found that more than 85 percent of elephant ivory from savanna populations came from East Africa, specifically the Selous Game Reserve in southeastern Tanzania and the Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

The seizures, though, happened at ports and airports in a variety of African countries.

RELATED: Airline Takes On Big Game Hunters to Protect Rhinos, Lions, and Elephants

The confusing transport structure shows the lengths traffickers will go to avoid detection, said William Clark of Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme. In the field, his team will follow the paper trail from an ivory seizure in East Asia and trace it back to a Kenyan port, which had papers showing the ivory was boxed in Uganda.

But that’s often where the paper trail ends. “So are these Ugandan elephants? No,” Clark said during the press conference. “In steps Sam [Wasser] here, and he says the DNA says they came from southern Tanzania. Tanzania has many ports. Why don’t they ship the ivory that is poached in Tanzania right out of a Tanzanian port? Why smuggle it to a landlocked country?”

To confound people like him, Clark said: “These are false trails put down intentionally.” Now, armed with the DNA analysis, Clark said, his team can focus their efforts on these hot spots—just as wildlife officials in these countries should be beefing up patrols, surveillance, and transport checks as well.

But some countries identified as a poaching hot spot, such as Tanzania, are sending mixed signals, according to Wasser. The elephant population has declined by 60 percent in Tanzania in just five years, from 109,051 animals in 2009 to 43,330 today. In one national park, nearly 12,000 disappeared in just one year, with the population falling from more than 20,000 to 8,200.

Those figures led Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete to sign the Cybercrimes Act in April, which could criminalize sharing online claims that the government deems “false or misleading”—like scientific research showing how bad the elephant crisis truly is in the country.

Earlier this month, Lazaro Nyalandu, Tanzania’s natural resources minister, said the elephants “mysteriously left.”

“We expect to launch an extensive operation in search of the lost elephants,” Nyalandu told Tanzania Daily News.

Now, with the DNA evidence, Wasser said countries can’t just deny or explain away these types of population declines.

So, Why Should You Care? Tanzania is just one piece of the puzzle affecting the dramatic slaughter of elephants over the past decade. That’s sustaining the ivory demand in Asia, where stores sell ivory trinkets that add up to billions of dollars in sales on the black market.

Elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet, and they have a huge impact on their surrounding ecosystem. As part of Africa’s Big Five species, along with the lion, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, and the giraffe, the elephant is one of the continent’s main drivers of tourism—a boon to the African economy.

The same DNA techniques can be used to track other animals illegally poached and traded, said Samrat Mondol, a study coauthor and a University of Washington biologist who studies tiger and leopard populations in India.

“This kind of information for many different species that are critically endangered or endangered gives a tremendous amount of power to conservationists, as well as law enforcement,” Mondol said.