Public protests against the ivory trade have flared across the United States, from Denver’s 2013 “Ivory Crush” to the more recent animal-welfare event in Central Park, 2017. The United States placed a ban on the ivory trade in 2016 and punishments for poachers have become more severe¹. Yet, the ivory trade is still a major global concern — and it is on the rise. This industry is lucrative, as it makes about 4 billion dollars a year² and if poachers are caught, they are oftentimes only convicted for the crime at the moment; without forensics, it is very difficult to provide evidence that a poacher was involved in a string of previous trafficking incidents. However,the recent work of Samuel Wasser and his team³ ⁴ ⁵ has been a great help to elephant conservation and the wearing down of the ivory trade.
Samuel Wasser and his team approached the problem of poaching with forensics³. By observing the genetic make-up of 38 large ivory seizures between 2006–2015, they were able to determine the tusks’ origins and link independent seizures together. This nonintrusive method worked by identifying ‘hotspots’ for elephant poaching so that these sites could be more heavily regulated and by exposing the largest traffickers and cartels within the industry.
In order to determine poaching hotspots, Dr. Wasser first had to construct a genetic map of African elephants. Poaching in Central Africa has been a severe problem and the thick forests and foliage make monitoring such activity particularly difficult. To obtain genetic samples from elephants in a region, Wasser had dogs scavenge for elephant droppings, a good source of DNA². By looking at DNA from 28 locations across Africa, Wasser and his team saw considerable gene variation even across small regions. The frequencies of genetic variation were graphed on a continental map and compared to the genes from confiscated tusks. Tusk origins were analyzed to an accurate degree, with 50% of samples located within 500 km, and 80% within 932 km of their actual place of origin³. Several major hotspots were identified: southeastern Tanzania, northeastern Gabon, northwestern Republic of Congo, and southeastern Cameroon⁴.
Not only were hotspots identified, but traffickers and cartels exposed as well. When Dr. Wasser and his team went through each seizure, they noticed something interesting: over half the tusks appeared to be unpaired. The tusks were often separated from the time the animal was killed to the site of export. If individual tusks from one shipment could be paired with tusks from other shipments, single shipments could be linked to many others. This would provide the necessary evidence to convict traffickers of multiple crimes and expose the cartels that organized and exported large shipments of ivory. Dr. Wasser and his team were able to do just that — they paired elephant tusks first on the basis of similarities in their color, diameter, and the distance from the base of the tusk to the gum line. After physical characteristics were matched, the genotypes were compared and needed to be identical. Shipments were linked and three of the largest export cartels operating in Africa between 2011 and 2014 were outed; Wasser found that though tusk pairs were separated, both tusks were often shipped from the same port on the same day. Furthermore, this information harshened the sentences of two of Africa’s biggest ivory traffickers: Emile N’bouke in Togo, the largest ivory trafficker in West Africa, and Feisal Mohamed who was recently given a sentence of 20 years in prison⁵.
Samuel Wasser was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Medal for his work in 2018. When accepting the award, he stated, “I started working in Africa when I was 19 years old because I loved animals.That was 1973. Since then, I have watched the rising toll that overconsumption, habitat destruction and poaching has had on the world’s most spectacular terrestrial and marine organisms”⁶. Throughout Dr. Wasser’s lifetime, there has been a dramatic decline in the elephant population. Poaching kills nearly 40,000 elephants a year with only 400,000 left in the wild². Yet, new approaches in forensics are fighting against this, non-intrusively stopping poaching at its source. Not only can these methods be used on elephants, but many other populations as well. This forensic method has recently been applied to pangolins, cocker-spaniel sized mammals that are hunted for their skin, scales, and meat². Forensics has proved a useful tool in fighting against the ivory trade and also gives us hope that some of the “world’s most spectacular terrestrial and marine organisms” can be saved.
¹Actman, Jani. (June 3, 2016). U.S. adopts near-total ivory ban. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/us-ivory-ban-regulations/
²Weintraub, Karen. (2018, Sept.19). Elephant tusk dna helps track ivory poachers. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/19/science/ivory-poaching-genetics.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront
³Wasser, S. K., Shedlock, A. M., Comstock, K., Ostrander, E. A., Mutayoba, B., & Stephens, M. (2004). Assigning African elephant DNA to geographic region of origin: applications to the ivory trade.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/101/41/14847.short
⁴Wasser, S. K., Brown, L., Mailand, C., Mondol, S., Clark, W., Laurie, C., & Weir, B. S. (2015). Genetic assignment of large seizures of elephant ivory reveals Africa’s major poaching hotspots.Science.Retrieved from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6243/84
⁵Wasser, S. K., Torkelson, A., Winters, M., Horeaux, Y., Tucker, S., Otiende, M. Y., & Weir, B. S. (2018). Combating transnational organized crime by linking multiple large ivory seizures to the same dealer.Science Advances.http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/9/eaat0625
⁶Holtz, Jackson. (2018, April 10). UW’s Samuel Wasser receives prestigious Albert Schweitzer medal. UW News. Retrieved from https://www.washington.edu/news/2018/04/10/uws-samuel-wasser-receives-prestigious-albert-schweitzer-medal/