Wildlife detectives link smuggled African elephant ivory to 3 major cartels

  • By matching DNA from elephant tusks found in major illegal ivory shipments, and using information on the ports of origin of the shipments, researchers have pinpointed three major cartels that moved most of Africa’s large illegal ivory shipments between 2011 and 2014.
  • These three cartels operated from Entebbe in Uganda, Mombasa in Kenya, and Lomé in Togo.
  • The researchers hope that links established in the study will help tie ivory-trafficking kingpins to multiple large ivory seizures, and strengthen the case against them.

Around 40,000 African elephants are illegally killed for their tusks every year. But catching ivory poachers, and successfully convicting them, has remained incredibly hard.

In 2016, for instance, Kenyan businessman Feisal Mohamed Ali was found guilty of dealing in ivory worth $433,000, equivalent of killing at least 120 elephants, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But a Kenyan judge recently acquitted Feisal based on trial irregularities, referring his case to a lower court for retrial. Feisal and his co-conspirators had been originally tried for only one ivory seizure, but the case against him could have been stronger had he been tied to multiple large ivory shipments that he’s suspected of being associated with.

A new study has found a way to do that.

By matching DNA from elephant tusks recovered from major illegal ivory shipments, and using information on the ports of origin of the shipments, Samuel Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, U.S., and colleagues have pinpointed three major cartels that moved most of Africa’s large illegal ivory shipments between 2011 and 2014. These three cartels operated from Entebbe in Uganda, Mombasa in Kenya, and Lomé in Togo, the researchers report in the study published in Science Advances.

“What we have realized is that the poachers are difficult to find because they operate in these large areas that they know really well, and even when they’re apprehended, they only have as much ivory as they can carry. And what they do is they sell their ivory to this pyramid of middlemen who move it up the crime chain to the ports where it’s consolidated and shipped in large volumes,” Wasser told reporters in a teleconference. “So the tools described in this new paper developed ways to link individual trafficking cartels to multiple shipments and to each other.”

African elephants at watering hole, Okavango Delta, Botswana. Image by Art Wolfe/Art Wolfe Inc.

Over the past decade, Wasser has pioneered the use of genetic methods to match ivory seizures to their points of origin. He started by collecting elephant dung across Africa, and used the DNA in the dung to create a genetic map of elephants across the African continent. This has been instrumental in mapping shipments: by matching DNA from unknown tusks in seized ivory to the DNA reference map of elephants, Wasser’s team has been able to determine the geographic origin of the seized ivory within 300 kilometers (186 miles) of the poaching source. Using these methods, the team in 2015 showed that there were two major elephant poaching hotspots in Africa: a hub for forest elephant ivory that includes Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, and a hub for savanna elephant ivory that includes Tanzania and Mozambique.

During the course of their investigation, Wasser’s team observed that more than half the tusks in the large ivory seizures they sampled from shipments appeared to be unpaired — that is, only one of the two tusks from an individual elephant was present in a shipment, while its pair was in another one. They found that in every case they examined, the two shipments containing matching tusks passed through a common port, and were shipped close together in time. Moreover, there was high overlap in the geographic origin of tusks in the shipments.

By linking the matching seizures to the shipments, the team was able to identify what they think are the three largest cartels that were involved in illegal ivory shipments between 2011 and 2014, a period when the illegal ivory trade was at its peak.

“These three characteristics suggest that the same major trafficking cartel was actually responsible for shipping both of the shipments,” Wasser said. “The overlapping origin of the tusks in the matching seizures also suggested that these cartels were probably supporting the poaching operations on the ground. When you think about this, it costs about $25 for a bullet to kill an elephant and these poachers don’t have a lot of money. And so someone needs to be supporting them and the fact that all this ivory was being drawn out of the same locations suggests that that was indeed the case.”

Samuel Wasser and his team do forensic analysis of a 4.6-ton ivory seizure in Singapore in 2015. The containers were being shipped from Mombasa, Kenya, to Vietnam. Image by Kate Brooks/The Last Animals.

Wasser’s team was also able to establish links between the three cartels, suggesting the cartels could sometimes be working together across the continent. For example, the researchers found that a 6-ton ivory shipment — with 4 tons of savanna elephant ivory and 2 tons of forest elephant ivory — that was intercepted in Malaysia in 2012 had passed through both Mombasa and Togo ports. Genetic matching of tusks revealed that the Mombasa cartel had shipped savanna elephant ivory from East Africa, which was offloaded in Togo in West Africa. The Lomé cartel in Togo then added tusks from Central and West African forest elephants to the shipment, before the final export to China via Malaysia. The Malaysia seizure, in fact, included tusks with matches in two other seizures in Togo in 2013 and 2014.

The researchers hope the links they’ve identified will help tie ivory-trafficking kingpins like Feisal and his co-conspirators to multiple large ivory seizures, and help strengthen the case against them.

“It takes a long time to catch these guys, and Feisal is a great example,” Wasser said. “He was tried, the data that we provided was important to that case, but now he’s since appealed and been acquitted. But now because of the connections that we’ve continued to gather, we have the opportunity to build a much stronger case against him as well as his co-conspirators, all of whom were acquitted.”

Strong DNA evidence also allows law enforcement officials to uncover some of the tricks that cartels use to mask their illegal activities. For instance, there may be two different names on two different shipments, and this may make one think that there’s not really a link between those two shipments, Wasser said. “But if you have strong evidence from the DNA linking these two shipments together, that allows you to explore deeper and see — are those names on those bills of landing really real. And so, that really helps you uncover those kinds of trickery.”

Making the connection between multiple seizures is also useful for tracking financial links and transactions associated with the illegal shipments, said John Brown, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “The connections through the DNA analysis have facilitated the financial investigations into these transactional criminal organizations which in the end will help us facilitate recuperating the assets that were illegally gained through this illegal activity,” he said.

However, the success of the genetic matching and geographic origin assignment tools depends on the willingness of countries making large seizures to submit samples for DNA analysis as close as possible to the time of the seizure, the researchers say.

In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed a decision urging countries making large ivory seizures to turn that ivory over for DNA testing for origin analysis to appropriate labs within 90 days of the seizure.

“Almost no country complied with that directive,” Wasser said. “And since then, we’ve worked very hard to try to compel countries to provide these data on a more timely basis because we know that these poaching hotspots are few in number and slow to change. It means that if we get a recent ivory seizure, and we know where the majority of that ivory is coming from, chances are that’s where the ivory is going to continue to be poached. And that’s a good place to direct law enforcement.

“The same thing happens with developing these links between these different cartels,” he added. “The sooner we start to get strong linkages, then the sooner that law enforcement can go in and really start to dig deeper and see where that leads.”

Wildlife detectives link smuggled African elephant ivory to 3 major cartels
Tusks from an ivory seizure in 2015 in Singapore sorted into pairs by the process developed by Wasser and his team. Image by Center for Conservation Biology/University of Washington.


Wasser et al. 2018. Combating transnational organized crime by linking multiple large ivory seizures to the same dealer. Science Advances. Vol. 4(9), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat0625.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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