Cambodian law enforcement officers received a tip from investigators at the United States Department of Homeland Security. At the freight terminal in Phnom Penh, a freight container – allegedly containing legally harvested timber from an African country – was unloaded for inspection. The officials pry open large logs and discovered more than a ton of illegal elephant ivory and other animal parts hidden in paraffin in the hollowed-out wood.
This catch, recovered about five years ago, was just a small fraction of the 500 tons of raw ivory shipped from Africa each year to illegal markets in China and Southeast Asia.
Nothing can bring back the elephants that were killed for their tusks. But a genetic research technique, family research, could help turn the tide against illegal catches of elephant parts and other wildlife, such as the party in Phnom Penh. Researchers detailed Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior how they used the tool to link hundreds of individual tusks recovered from dozens of large shipments of illegal ivory, providing detailed information about how and where global crime networks operate.
Although the technique has been used in many recent human criminal cases, Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington and an author of the paper, said it was the first time it has been applied to animals and to global environmental crime.
John Brown III, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations and also an author of the article, said Dr. Wasser had helped naturalists around the world to “see the connections and identify the larger network”.
Analyzing a pattern over time, he added, is far more valuable than investigating a single crime on its own. “It’s a huge challenge to connect the dots when it’s examined once,” said Mr Brown. In addition, linking one smuggler to multiple ivory catches can help prosecutors build stronger cases and lead to tougher sentences.
About 50,000 African elephants are killed each year, threatening the future of the continent’s elephant populations. Poachers in African countries typically sell ivory to middlemen who in turn sell it to major export groups, the experts at moving illegal goods.
These groups rely on ocean-going container ships to transport their smuggled cargo. Given the sheer volume of maritime trade – some 11 billion tons per year – inspecting the contents is difficult and expensive.
The team of dr. Wasser attempted to address this problem by adapting tools used in human forensics. Investigators sometimes use family research to find a perpetrator by identifying likely relatives in a DNA database. One of the most famous cases of this method being used led to the conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo, known as the Golden State Killer.
In the study, researchers took 4,320 tusks from savanna and forest elephants of 49 large shipments of illegal ivory seized by authorities between 2002 and 2019.
The lab of Dr. Wasser at the University of Washington had previously developed methods to link ivory to the genetic characteristics of specific animals by modifying a tool used to extract DNA from human teeth. Once researchers have access to a shipment of seized ivory, they must strategically determine which tusks to sample.
“There can be 2,000 tusks, and we can only take 200 per attack because it’s expensive,” said Dr. washer. Sampling each tusk costs about $200.
The team considers several factors to ensure a geographically representative sample and to choose unique tusks. Next, the scientists cut a square from the base of each tusk — about two inches long and a half inch thick — targeting a layer rich in DNA to be analyzed in Dr. Washer in Seattle.
In the current study, the team found nearly 600 genetically matched tusks, most of elephants’ closest relatives (parent, offspring or full or half siblings) across the seized loads. These genetic similarities allow law enforcement to link physical evidence from separate investigations — such as cell phone records and waybills from ports of origin — to locate criminals.
“We are able to understand a lot more about how connected transnational criminal organizations are, how they operate and how they have evolved over time,” said Dr. washer.
The paper shows a repeating pattern over the 17 years of tusks from the same families of elephants moving in separate containers through common African ports. Combining the genetic and physical evidence, the team mapped out the pattern of the ports used for trade, the countries where elephants were poached, and the links between the shipments. The results suggest that the same major human trafficking cartels have been operating for decades and are still getting ivory from the same places.
But the study also found that the cartels have moved their export operations to less conspicuous countries to try to avoid capture. Over the 17-year period, human trafficking activities moved from the poaching hotspot of Tanzania to nearby Kenya and then to Uganda, a landlocked country where ivory is packed in containers and transported by road or rail to port in Mombasa, Kenya is being transported.
After 2015, export activity in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola picked up. “We saw that the DRC was the next upcoming export hotspot,” said Dr. washer.
This investigation led to the arrest in Edmonds, Washington, in November of two Congolese animal traffickers. They risk more than 20 years in prison.
“We have the opportunity to take out the big boys once and for all,” said Dr. Wasser, adding that preventing ivory from entering transit is “the biggest impact you can have to dismantle and disrupt trade.”
dr. Wasser is building a large DNA database of seized ivory. And it grows. Ivory seized in the future will be analyzed and added so that links to previous illegal activities can be established.
“What we’ve learned from elephants has opened up a whole new field of research,” he said. This approach is now being applied to the trade in illegal timber and pangolins, the most poached mammal in the world.
The leaders of the criminal groups that deal in ivory and pangolins are also said to be smuggling drugs, weapons and people. In the future, the researchers using this evidence hope that other animals can be saved — and organized crime reduced — as a result of the genetic legacy of poached African elephants.