DNA taken from elephant tusks, and then matched with DNA from other tusk shipments seized in the fight against Africa’s illegal ivory trade, shows patterns that can help to identify those active in wildlife crime.
That’s based on results from a team of international scientists who published their work in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. They looked at 4,320 DNA samples taken during 49 different ivory seizures in 12 African nations, across a period of 17 years.
What they found were matches of close elephant relations, showing up in different African ports to be shipped overseas. The research team, led by director Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington Center for Environmental Forensic Science, said the DNA tracking showed the organized nature of wildlife crime of the African continent.
What it also showed, though, is that poachers appear to be targeting the same locations and elephant populations. That offers clues into how Africa’s elephants might be better protected in their home countries as well.
“These (DNA) methods are showing us that a handful of networks are behind a majority of smuggled ivory, and that the connections between these networks are deeper than even our previous research showed,” said Wasser. His previous research was based on an initial finding in 2018, but had been expanded in the latest model.
The research team, which included the Kenya Wildlife Service, says that by following the pathways and connections demonstrated in the tusk DNA samples, forensic investigators may be able to strengthen how they build and prosecute international wildlife crime cases.
The DNA data also offer insight into how the illegal ivory trade has shifted across the African continent over time, as shown in the above map.
Image: Wasser et al/ 2022 Nature Human Behaviour