DNA Forensics Is Helping Authorities to Catch Elephant Ivory Cartels

Scientists have created a novel DNA mapping tool that has exposed the secretive web of ivory trafficking in Africa.
Image: Flickr/Jordy Sla

Several times a year in African ports such as Mombasa and Togo, cargo containing tons of illegal elephant ivory is shipped by smuggling cartels, destined for countries such as Malaysia and Singapore where it’s sold and stockpiled. The transaction isn’t simple—before getting there, a secretive network of poachers, middlemen, and bribed customs agents in Africa ping-pong the cargo around the continent, widening the gap between the ivory’s origin and its eventual departure point.


On Wednesday, an international team of scientists announced a forensic tool for exposing ivory trafficking syndicates. By extracting elephant DNA from illegal ivory, the team mapped the passage of ivory shipments across multiple cartels and in multiple countries, and provided evidence to connect smugglers with poaching operations.

The sum of this activity is a transnational crime organization that contributes to the killing of 40,000 African elephants each year, according to one survey. And as cartels become more sophisticated—experts estimate that only 10 percent of the ivory smuggled annually is ultimately seized by authorities—newer, better strategies for preventing trafficking are desperately needed.

Tusks from a seizure in Malaysia in 2012. Image: Malaysia Department of National Parks

Data collected by the team has since been leveraged to assist ongoing criminal investigations. According to its findings, the cartels that moved the most ivory between 2011 and 2014 were based in Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo.

The study was also published in the journal Science Advances.

“The thing about wildlife is that it’s very valuable, yet so few wildlife cases get processed,” study author Samuel Wasser said during a press conference.

Wasser, who leads the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, has come to specialize in mapping elephants from their DNA. The scientist was asked by Interpol to assess a six-and-a-half ton ivory seizure in 2004, which marked the start of his forensic work.


“We discovered fairly early that ivory was almost always shipped out of a different country than where it was poached,” Wasser explained, calling it a strategy for tricking the system.

First, DNA was taken from 38 large seizures made around the world between 2006 and 2015. Tusks were sorted based on appearance to avoid testing two sides of one pair. (Genotyping a single tusk, Wasser noted, cost $110.) Only three square centimeters of each was sampled, and 36 percent of the cargo was genotyped, producing 3,315 samples to be analyzed.

Tusks with identical genotypes were considered a match, and ultimately 26 pairs were found across 11 shipments of ivory.

Wasser (left) and his team sample ivory from tusks in Malaysia in 2014. Image: Malaysia Department of National Parks

By comparing the genotypes of seized tusks, the team deduced that pairs were often separated before shipping. Law enforcement data showed that two sides of a pair generally left the same port within 10 months of each other, and were exported by the same cartel, the “final consolidators” of poached ivory, according to the study, between 2011 and 2014 when the ivory trade was peaking.

The study also suggests that cartels from different African countries were assisting one another. For example, a 2016 shipment intercepted in Malaysia passed through ports in Mombasa and Togo. It was later found that tusks from the Malaysia cargo matched tusks from two separate seizures in Mombasa and Togo.

The team compared genotyped tusks to a geographic origin map of elephant populations in Africa. Wasser created this map in 2015 to identify poaching hotspots from DNA sampled mainly from elephant poop. (“It was the most accessible,” he admitted.)


The process let them see where an elephant likely was when it was poached. Many of the seized tusks shared a geographic origin, “suggesting these cartels are probably supporting poaching operations on ground,” Wasser theorized. The Malaysia seizure, for example, contained ivory from two poaching hotspots in East and West Africa.

Some ports use algorithms to screen cargo containers, based on origin and destination—if a shipment is headed to or from a high-risk country, it may be inspected. To avoid detection, smugglers have been known to bounce ivory through decoy ports, or even forge official documentation.

Four of the tusk pairs could be traced to a 2012 slaughter in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the hotspots that Wasser had previously discovered. Here, poachers killed 22 elephants, some of them babies, allegedly from a helicopter over Garamba National Park. Tusks from these elephants were subsequently transported through ports in Mombasa and Entebbe.

DNA forensics can also strengthen the legal cases against wildlife criminals, such as Feisal Mohamed Ali, a Mombasa ivory kingpin wanted by Interpol in 2014. Ali was accused by Kenyan police of running an international poaching syndicate connected to three tons of ivory intercepted in 2014. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison with a fine of $200,000, though Ali later appealed and was acquitted this year.

While Ali was only tried for one seizure, connecting cartels to multiple seizures “can build a much stronger case against [criminals like him],” Wasser said. He added that law enforcement associated Ali with drug traffickers known as the Akasha brothers out of East Africa (extradited in 2017, and “now in prison down the hall from El Chapo,” Wasser said), suggesting that ivory cartels may be just one part of larger trafficking networks.


A special agent for the Department of Homeland Security, John Brown, said that Wasser’s technique has assisted several investigations so far. Brown is a member of the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, created in 2013 by President Obama to address and prosecute wildlife crime.

The challenge now is convincing countries that genotyping illegal ivory is worth it. In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty to regulate wildlife crime, recommended that countries should submit large ivory seizures for analysis within 90 days or as soon as possible. But “almost no country has done that on a timely basis,” Wasser claimed.

Even in the United States, the pressure to protect elephants is political. This year, an Obama-era ban on importing elephant trophies from several African countries was lifted by President Trump, whose son Donald Trump Jr. is an enthusiastic big game hunter. The federal government will now evaluate these imports on a “case-by-case” basis.

“[Authorities are] saying it’s okay for a wealthy hunter to kill an elephant,” Wasser remarked, “but if a poor poacher kills an elephant they go to prison.”

Wasser and his team are hoping to port their model onto other endangered species—the pangolin, for instance, a scaly critter believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal. The University of Washington, he added, is also creating a “center of excellence” in forensic science.

“The importance of publishing this work is to convey to countries how critical it is that they participate in these investigations,” Wasser stressed. “If countries don’t collaborate to get a handle on this stuff, they’re really gonna beat us.”