Poachers are killing 40,000 elephants a year and with a global elephant population of just 400,000, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that there is an urgent need to stop the killing.
But it’s hard to catch poachers in the act. They operate over a wide area, move just a few elephant tusks at a time and once their ivory contraband reaches a major port, it can be easily hidden among other goods, said Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.
In a new study published Wednesday in Science Advances, Dr. Wasser and several colleagues demonstrated an approach he hopes will help catch and convict more international ivory traffickers.
Dr. Wasser had already developed a genetic map of African elephants by analyzing scat from across the continent. Now, he can link that map with genetic analysis of confiscated tusks to determine where the animal was living when it was killed. This can help law enforcement target areas most susceptible to poaching, he said in a telephone news conference on Tuesday.
One hot spot is in far northern Gabon, in West Africa, which has lost 60 percent of its elephant population in the last eight years, said John Brown, a special agent in the United States Department of Homeland Security who is involved in prosecutions of ivory traffickers.
“It helps us focus our investigative efforts and our conservation efforts on the ground to attack the problem at the source and also to take down the transnational criminal organizations that are responsible,” Mr. Brown said.
Dr. Wasser’s approach, he added, “is a very successful tool that’s being exploited to the fullest in these investigations.”
Each tusk costs $100 to genetically analyze and there might be 1,000-2,000 tusks in every seizure, so investigators have to strategically analyze only a sample of each diverted shipment, Dr. Wasser said.
Trafficking cartels often separate tusks into multiple shipments. Dr. Wasser said researchers can sometimes link shipments by showing that tusks in two different shipments belong to the same elephant or the same family. That way, he said, they can link criminals to more than one shipment, leading to harsher sentences when they are caught.
Earlier reporting on tracking poachers
Read more about efforts to use genetic tools to save endangered animals.
In 2016, a ring of international poachers was convicted in Tanzania, but the defendants’ cases were thrown out on grounds of trial irregularities and weak evidence.
Dr. Wasser said genetic data has since connected the ring to additional shipments, which he expects will lead to a conviction that will stick.
He urged the governments of countries where the poaching occurs to turn over contraband as soon as it is seized so it can be genetically analyzed.
International ports are simply too busy — with 1 billion containers shipped worldwide — to find poached ivory, Dr. Wasser said. Ivory trafficking brings in $4 billion a year worldwide, he said. Now that he has established a model for identifying elephants and their poached tusks, Dr. Wasser said he is taking the same approach to track pangolins — cocker spaniel-sized anteaters that are prized for their meat and scales.
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Dr. Wasser said it’s important for consumers to stop buying ivory and other animal products — which are sold as trinkets or pitched, without medical evidence, as aphrodisiacs or treatments for various diseases. There are also people, he said, who appear to be buying whole tusks as “investments,” hoping they will become even more valuable some day, perhaps if the elephants are hunted to extinction.
Fundamentally, Dr. Wasser said, addressing the demand side takes more time than conservationists have to protect elephants.
“We need something really urgent that gets in there and really stops the trade in its tracks,” he said, adding that he hopes his genomic approach will be part that solution.