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From Tusk to Cartel

Using genetic tools, researchers have traced elephant poaching and ivory smuggling back to a handful of cartels, the New York Times reports. It adds that that there are only some 400,000 elephants left globally and that poachers kill about 40,000 elephants a year.

The University of Washington's Samuel Wasser and his colleagues previously developed a genetic map of elephants in Africa by sampling elephant dung and, at that time, Wasser said he could take a tusk from an African elephant and pinpoint its origins to within a few hundred kilometers.

They've now used that map in conjunction with another observation they made: shipping containers full of tusks don't always contain both of an individual elephant's tusks — they got separated at some point between the poaching spot and port. As they report in Science Advances, Wasser and his colleagues genotyped separated tusks to link together different shipments. Two shipments containing separated tusk pairs would pass through a common port at similar times, and the shipments would contain other tusks from similar geographical origins. This, Wasser tells NPR, suggests the same cartel was responsible for both shipments. In particular, he and he colleagues identified three cartels that operate out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lome, Togo.

He adds that by linking various shipments together, law enforcement can go after smugglers higher up the chain. During a press briefing Wasser noted that this information could be used to strengthen a case against the ivory trafficker Feisal Muhammad Ali, who was recently tried, but acquitted on appeal.