Investigators are using elephant DNA to fight the illegal wildlife trade
It’s no mystery what is behind the annual disappearance of 40,000 elephants across Africa: poachers, who kill the animals for their ivory tusks.
What has eluded law-enforcement officials to this point, though, has been the identity of the players who comprise the poaching pyramids — from the low-level, boots-on-the-ground killers at the bottom to, more critically, the big bosses perched at the top.
But now an emerging partnership working to expose these bad actors has coalesced around an extensive elephant-DNA database, which is turning huge stockpiles of seized ivory into mountains of evidence. And that, in turn, is helping identify the ivory cartels, which could help prosecute their kingpins.
The primary players in this white-hat-wearing coalition are an International team of biologists and researchers; a division of US Homeland Security officials; and law-enforcement officers throughout Africa.
And a key component in their effort to unmask the villains is dung.
A good journalism rule of thumb for finding bad guys is “follow the money.” In this case, however, the good guys have been using a modified version of the rule: they followed the poop.
“Our lab was one of the first to extract DNA out of wildlife dung,” Dr. Samuel Wasser told Moving Giants
Wasser, a biology professor at the University of Washington and the Director of that school’s Center for Conservation Biology, leads the research component of this DNA detective squad.
“Everyone thought [dung] was degraded,” he added, “and that you couldn’t find out how to extract DNA from dung in a usable form. What made me confident it could be done was that people were identifying whole cells in human colorectal cancer.”
Wasser and his team had their breakthrough moment with dung and DNA in 1997. What followed was a rigorous collection process, gathering dung from all over Africa. Through painstaking work over more than a decade and a half — and using evidence based on these samples (as well as DNA from tissue, bone and ivory) — Wasser’s team created a geographic map of Africa that corresponded to the collected elephant DNA.
Fascinatingly, this map has led the team to be able to pinpoint seized ivory back to precise geographic locations throughout the continent.
“We also pioneered measuring hormones (stress, nutritional, reproductive) from dung,” Wasser told Moving Giants. “We started mapping forest and savanna elephant genetics across the continent via dung. It took us about 15 years. Basically, we use the same kind of genetic markers that Interpol or the FBI use in tracing criminal activity, called micro-satellite DNA. It gives you a very high precision. If you give me an elephant sample — be it blood, bone, tissue, or feces — I can get the DNA out of it and, comparing it to my reference map, I can pinpoint it to within 180 miles of its origin.”
Given that Africa is larger than the United States, China, India and most of Europe combined, that kind of precision is incredible.
But how does tracing where an elephant sample comes from help in identifying powerful international cartels trafficking illegal wildlife trade?
"We were able to identify not only the three biggest cartels operating out of Africa, but that they also work together to varying degrees. It’s all a shell game to try and complicate things for investigators."
Dr. Samuel Wasser
Dung and DNA turns out to be not just a Rosetta Stone for elephant genetic code — but also, when properly mapped, can lead investigators to the perpetrators.
First, Wasser provided some context on the illegal ivory trade in Africa.
“We don’t test just any sample,” he noted. “We restrict sampling to ivory seizures that are measured at half a ton. We restrict it to half a ton to see where organized crime is operating. Seventy percent of all ivory that is seized is in shipments of half a ton or more.”
So this would not be subsistence poaching, then, we asked?
“Not subsistence poaching,” he said. “No way. These are the guys that are doing the lion’s share of the damage. Large criminals that can afford to lose $1 million in one seizure.”
Wasser then further explained that, from 2005 to 2015, 100% — yes, all — of these large seizures came from just two places: 78% came from East Africa — largely Tanzania (“the most heavily poached area of Africa”) and the other 22% of the seizures were forest elephants, and they largely came from Central Africa in what is known as the TRIDOM, which is the last stronghold of forest elephants.
[Editor’s Note: TRIDOM is a compound acronym referring to an area where the three countries of Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon intersect: “TRI” stands for three, and then “DOM” is an acronym representing one protected area in each country.]
“It was very significant to identify those two areas,” said Wasser. “We figured, ‘Let’s focus here and see where the biggest guys were operating.’ “
Their research ultimately helped to trace the illegally harvested animal parts to three dominant cartels: two in East Africa (Kenya and Uganda), and the third in West Africa (Togo). This revelation is helping unmask one of the planet’s most perplexing and frustrating criminal operations.
But how does the detective work, well, work?
Successful criminal operations are able to stay one or more steps ahead of law enforcement because law enforcement is still trying to piece together evidence. And when staring at a blank canvas, law enforcement’s work can be overwhelming. But once collected evidence starts to paint a portrait, scenarios can stand out to investigators.
“So now we really want to get these big cartels,” explained Wasser, “and we had a fortuitous breakthrough. It is very expensive to sample tusks — $110 to sample just one tusk, and you have thousands. That is $110k to sample every tusk in a seizure, and if you spend money like that, your money is not going to last very long.
“So we developed a way to representatively sample the seizures. Out of 800-1000 tusks in a very large seizure, we would take 200 samples. We would look for pairs and try to remove one of the tusks from each pair so we didn’t analyze the same animal twice. But over half the tusks in each seizure did not have a pair.
“It made us realize that, in that chain — moving from the poachers who initially obtained the ivory, to the small middleman, to the bigger and bigger middlemen, until it got to the boss, moving up the supply chain — that the two tusks often got separated.
“If poachers are working together, and they get a pair of big tusks, they might say, ‘You take one and I’ll take the other,’ or perhaps the initial middleman doesn’t have enough money to buy both — there’s lots of ways the tusks can get separated. But at the end of the line, because these guys are the big cartels, both tusks still ends up in the same place. The way we came to that conclusion, whenever two tusks were found in separate seizures, they were always sent out of the same port, within 10 months of each other, and they were very highly overlapped. These guys are drawing ivory from the same place over and over again. All that suggests the same guy packed both of those shipments.
“These cartels compete for dominance in their location, like the Mafia. You get these kingpins, and the tusks move up these supply chains, then they arrive at the same place because, ultimately, the big guys are the final stop. They buy everything. The same network gets them all. The same tusks often end up in the same place eventually.
“What we were able to do was take those paired seizures and link them together like links in a chain, and we were able to identify not only the three biggest cartels operating out of Africa, but that they also work together to varying degrees. It’s all a shell game to try and complicate things for investigators. There are about 1 billion shipping containers moving around the world at any given time. These transnational criminals are moving not only ivory but also drugs, also weapons. Singapore has 35 million containers going through it every year — how many can they search? There’s a dramatic increase of volume moving through the shipping industry. Our whole approach becomes very important, because the ports use algorithms to determine which containers to search. But if the algorithm is looking for shipments our of high-poached countries, the shipments are moved to other countries.
“The connections between them is mind-blowing. If it gets too hot moving it out of East Africa, you move it to West Africa and move it out of there.”
"If you give me an elephant sample — be it blood, bone, tissue, or feces — I can get the DNA out of it and, comparing it to my reference map, I can pinpoint it to within 180 miles of its origin."
Dr. Samuel Wasser
Wasser and his team are not in this fight alone. Law enforcement throughout Africa, aided by support from the US, are using his team’s work to put the squeeze on the cartels. You might wonder what jurisdiction the US has overseas to fight such crimes as those involving illegal wildlife.
Much of that mandate comes from an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2016, which led to the creation of a statute called the ENDACT HR2494, which is an acronym for “Eliminate, Neutralize and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act” and which authorized the creation of a wildlife-trafficking task force to combat the illicit trade in wildlife.
“I was referred to Dr. Wasser as a result of ENDACT,” John Brown, the Homeland Security Investigations Country Representative (or HSI Country Rep.) in Kenya, told Moving Giants. “People, goods and money — we have a lot of legal authorities we can use to combat transnational organizations, as members of the wildlife-trafficking task force. We utilize our law-enforcement authority to collaborate with our foreign counterparts where there is trafficking, to help them investigate the transitional criminal organizations (TCOs) responsible for the trafficking.”
“The majority of these wildlife cases have a direct nexus to the US by financial systems and banking systems and other financial institutions in the US, used to facilitate their illicit activities. Thereby wire-fraud statutes and money laundering statues are initiated. And it is a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Brown took a circuitous route to his current position, but one that makes sense viewed through the prism of his interest in the environment. “I started off in narcotics as a canine handler,” he noted. “I have always been conservation oriented. I was working in West and Central Africa for the Smithsonian institution and National Geographic, leading expeditions.”
Now based in East Africa, Brown is helping facilitate the partnership between Wasser’s work and that of law enforcement.
“As part of the executive order signed by Obama and put into law by ENDACT,” noted Brown, “we’re mandated to collaborate with not only our foreign law-enforcement counterparts, but also the private sector, the NGO sector, to combat the wildlife-trafficking issue that needs to be addressed globally, from every sector of the population. I think it makes perfect sense for forensic scientists to be involved to connect these TCOs to their illicit activity. The analysis done by [Wasser’s group] is a perfect collaborative relationship between the scientific community and law enforcement to combat this international scourge that is wildlife trafficking.”
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact the work of these DNA detectives will have on poaching. But, as Brown noted, “This is the modern age. The traffickers are moving in real time, and moving at the speed of light, in the same way that narcotics traffickers do. If we don’t work together as law enforcement, with scientific counterparts and NGO counterparts, we’re never going to defeat it.”
“We are working very significant cases right now,” Wasser added. "All I can say is stay tuned.”