DNA Tracking of Illegal Ivory and What it has Uncovered

Nora Tahbaz

The African elephants’ massive tusks have been a sought-after treasure for centuries because of their cultural importance and because they are valued as a status symbol across the world. The only way to gain the ivory is to kill an elephant which has led to the rapid demise of the population, as poachers continue to murder elephants to meet the demand. Beginning in 1988, many countries including the United States enforced bans individually on the export and import of ivory . However, there were many countries in the 1980’s –  and still some today –  who disagree with banning ivory including Japan, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, and South Africa because of its significance to economies and culture. Nonetheless, in 1989, an international policy organization, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the trade of ivory completely and world-wide.Although this ban did have a positive impact at first, poaching has been on the rise again, as the demand increased, starting in the early 2000s, as evidenced by data on illegal ivory seized at border controls. 

Over 25,000 kg of ivory (or 27 tons) were seized between August 2005 and August 2006, which is estimated to represent 10% of the true volume of ivory smuggled in that time period (275 tons of ivory or the equivalent of 38,000 poached elephants) because most illegal ivory is never apprehended. In June 2002, 6.5 tons of ivory were seized in Singapore after being shipped from Malawi via Mozambique and South Africa, which was the largest single seizure since the 1989 ivory ban.

In an effort to decrease the illegal trade of ivory, and to understand poachers and their level of organization, DNA analysis and forensic methods have started being used to determine where elephant poaching occurs most across Africa. First, DNA is extracted from the illegal ivory and then compared to various groups of elephants’ DNA living across Africa and their known origins. Through the cross referencing of multiple genes and the high reliability on the differences in genetic codes between different groups, scientists were able to illustrate where the illegal ivory had come from with great success and specificity. From this research, scientists were able to show that the ivory was coming from very specific locations in Africa, and that each container of seized ivory held pieces from the same location. Customs agencies along with governments used this DNA evidence to uncover that larger organizations would be needed to pull off attacks on focused groups of elephants in focused locations, and the transfer of all this ivory would also include a high level of corruption as well. Thus, the idea of the involvement of crime syndicates and corruption were brought to light.

Crime syndicates fuel wars and other armed conflicts in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and The Darfur area. Because of the high level of organization, poachers are making ten times the amount they would normally make from a year of farming and they are given highly dangerous, automatic weapons by the syndicates, that allow them to protect themselves against government officials and wildlife rangers who are trying to protect the elephants. For the organized crime syndicates to be effective, large amounts of corruption must be involved and there is overwhelming evidence that suggests that South African-based traders are working with military officials to import raw ivory from Angola to markets across the world. One of the most famous groups that became ivory traders were the Selous Scouts that were established by the Rhodesian government in 1973. Soon, these soldiers began to acquire ivory and they would fly it to their contacts in the South African Special Forces or Military Intelligence. Even after the collapse of Rhodesia and the disbandment of the Selous Scouts, they still participated in ivory trafficking on large scales and continued their relationship with military officials from various locations.  Even after CITES tried to gain control of the ivory trade with the ban, corruption of military officials still continued and South African officials were known to have shifted ivory into Mozambique where it was then falsely registered as of Mozambican origin which makes tracking the ivory and finding its true origins more difficult.

This is an example of why DNA forensic methods are so important in shutting down the illegal ivory trade that is continuing to claim the thousands of lives of African Elephants to this day. Scientists are now able to pinpoint vulnerable countries and the elephants within them that are being targeted by poachers. This can help countries know where to send more enforcement officers and can allow for the interception of illegal ivory in both African ports and ports across the globe. 

Sources:  Hutchens (2013), Montazeri (2013), Wasser, Clark, Drori, Kisamo, Mailand, Mutayoba, & Stephens (2008), and Wasser, Clark, & Laurie (2009)