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Fighting the $3 billion illegal ivory trade with DNA

A group of researchers has used the DNA found in illegally hunted elephant tusks to help African law enforcement agencies track the continent's biggest ivory poachers.

A KWS security officer stands near a burning pile of 15 tons of elephant ivory seized in Kenya at Nairobi National Park on March 3, 2015.
Carl De Souza | AFP | Getty Images

Ivory has become such a valued product in the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade that experts fear poaching threatens the continued existence of Africa's elephants. Researchers from the University of Washington and Interpol found through genetic evidence that a staggering portion of the illegally hunted ivory was taken from only two relatively small regions in Africa.

It's hoped that the information will help governments and international groups focus their efforts to protect elephants. The largest mammals on Earth, elephants are a "keystone" species that play an important role in the overall health of Africa's forests, which in turn provide resources for the region and oxygen for the planet.

The researchers examined 1,500 DNA samples from tusks found in 28 large ivory shipments captured by law enforcement in Asia and Africa from 2006 to 2014. (Tweet This)

The seizures account for 70 percent of all ivory taken by law enforcement, so they're useful for understanding the trade as a whole. A large seizure weighs at least a half a ton, and is usually worth at least $1 million or more, said Sam Wasser, one of the researchers who worked on the study.

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Almost all of the ivory matched elephant populations in and around two regions—one in East Africa and one in Central Africa. In both cases, most of the elephants were taken from game reserves, national parks, or other areas that are designed to protect wildlife.

Poaching "hot spots" provide hunters with three important factors: a large elephant population, a forest they can use for cover and an inadequate legal infrastructure that allows them to smuggle ivory out of the country.

It's a criminal enterprise. It's an industry that has supply, demand, infrastructure, transport of freight, forwarding, factories, middlemen, all of the elements of any major commodity are also found in the ivory industry, including banking.
Bill Clark

Central Africa has lost 95 percent of its forest elephant population to poaching, according to the researchers. Over half of those losses occurred in the past 10 years.

"Their loss is already causing major ecological and economic damage in Africa, threatening national security, and again, if we do not curb the killings, we are really going to cause serious problems throughout Africa," Wasser said.

The team published its research in the journal Science on Thursday.

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Asian countries, especially China, are believed to be the largest market for ivory. It's long been used there in jewelry, art and other items. Rising wealth in China has contributed to a boom in demand for ivory, but China's government has lately shown signs of a crackdown on its domestic market.

A typical African poacher can sell ivory for about $300 per kilo, and a typical elephant yields around 10 kilos of ivory, Wasser said, making each elephant worth about $3,000 to poachers.

"That is a fortune, especially for poachers who live in the countryside," Wasser said. "It's more than the per capita income for the people there, just killing one animal, taking the ivory."

Once the ivory is carved, polished and turned into a product at retail, the value skyrockets to about $6,000 per kilo.

Multiplying a retail price of about $6,000 a kilo by the approximately 50,000 elephants killed each year, with each yielding 10 kilos, indicates an industry worth at least $3 billion.

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"It's a criminal enterprise," said Bill Clark, one of the study's co-authors, and an officer with Interpol. "It's an industry that has supply, demand, infrastructure, transport of freight, forwarding, factories, middlemen, all of the elements of any major commodity are also found in the ivory industry, including banking."

Clark added that money has to be laundered through banks as well. But it's relatively easy to spot when it's being sold.

"Ivory is like Gucci shoes or a Rolex watch or any other fashionable item in that it needs to be shown. This is the whole reason behind it. It's a status symbol," Clark said. "So you don't sell it in dark alleys. It's sold in retail outlets and boutiques and department stores, and whatever, and it takes an enormous distribution system to market a million items a month, 12 million a year."

There are roughly only about 470,000 elephants left on the continent, and hunters are killing about 10 percent of them every year. Though countries that buy ivory are trying to ban or restrict its sale, the researchers said more urgent measures are needed on to curb the supply of illegal ivory.

Wasser said researchers will know if poachers pick up and move to a new location now that the results have been published.

"Well it may happen, but if it does, we'll detect it," Wasser said.