Research Press Release

Genetics: DNA exposes trafficking networks for elephant ivory

Nature Human Behaviour

February 15, 2022

Networks for the trafficking of ivory out of Africa have been identified using DNA from over 4,000 tusks of African elephants, reports a paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Understanding the connections between ivory seizures may strengthen prosecutions of the criminals responsible, ensuring that they are held accountable for all of their crimes.

Ivory trafficking is illegal and threatens declining elephant populations; however, the trade continues. Ivory seizures — large shipments of tusks seized by authorities — provide information that can help law enforcement to understand the activities of traffickers. Previous work has identified tusks from the same elephant found in different seizures, revealing links between shipments.

Samuel Wasser and colleagues use DNA from 4,320 tusks of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) to identify exact matches (two tusks from the same elephant) and close relatives, which are far more common. The authors reveal that the majority of the 49 large ivory seizures (totalling 111 tonnes) shipped out of Africa between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations, and that a few large, interconnected networks may be behind the majority of these crimes. Data analysis also suggests the strategic movement of this network between ports in Africa.

These findings have important implications for criminal prosecutions, the authors conclude. With the added evidence of these genetic data, arrests made on the basis of a single ivory seizure may result in prosecution for multiple linked shipments, leading to more serious penalties for the criminals responsible.


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