Scientists matched information from DNA samples of elephant tusks taken from multiple shipments to their port of shipment to expose the smuggling cartels operating on the continent.
They genetically matched some pairs of tusks that had been separated before they were shipped to different locations around the world, revealing insights about their networks.
The matched samples were found in shipments that originated from Mombasa port in Kenya and had passed through Uganda, two of East Africa’s poaching hotspots. In Togo, samples of ivory seizures made in 2014 were matched to a large shipment in Malaysia, the study said.
“We identified three major export cartels operating in Africa between 2011 and 2014,” Wasser’s team said in the study.
According to the study, poachers are presently being prosecuted for single seizures, but linking smuggling networks to larger seizures would help law enforcement build stronger cases against them.
“Methods that can connect individual traffickers to multiple large seizures have the potential to elevate their charges to major transnational crimes, simultaneously increasing the severity of their sentences,” the authors wrote.
“Targeting the major export cartels could thus provide some of the most direct ways to police this illegal trade and stop the killing. We use genetic methods to determine the number, scale, and location of Africa’s major ivory export cartels as well as their connection to in-country poaching hotspots,” the study said.