Conservationists have developed a new high-tech strategy to trace the cartels that smuggle much of the illegal ivory around the world — by using DNA to track ivory back to specific ports.
Biologist Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington is behind the effort.
Wasser analyzed DNA from tusks that were seized by customs officials. He noticed that smugglers often separate the two tusks that come from a single elephant and ship them separately, apparently to make it harder to track where they came from.
But Wasser found a pattern.
Almost always, he says, “The two shipments with matching tusks passed through a common port. They were shipped close together in time and they showed high overlap in the genetically determined origins of the tusks.
“So these three characteristics suggest that the same major trafficking cartel was actually responsible for … both of the shipments,” he says.
Wasser says the DNA technique allows authorities to link different shipments to a small number of ports, made about the same time, with ivory from elephants in just a few locations in Africa — and that narrows the search for the responsible cartel.
Writing in the journal Science Advances, Wasser’s team has identified three cartels associated with much of the recent trade. They operate out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lome, Togo.
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