By: Kyle James | 09-20-2018 | News
Photo credit: Art Wolfe

South Africa - Three Big Trafficking Cartels Revealed By DNA From Seized Elephant Ivory

Researchers say pairs of elephant tusks that are separated when they are smuggled are revealing the tracks of the wildlife cartel who smuggle them. Just like the drug cartels deal in illegal drugs, a similar industry ran by cartels surrounds the export of illegal animal products such as ivory. Researchers have made a development in tracking the wildlife cartels by matching elephant DNA in different shipments of tusks that could lead to the criminals behind the illegal animal trafficking.

The scientists behind the study told <i>Science Advances</i> the technique has revealed the shipments came from three major interconnected cartels in Africa. The new method of tracking ivory shipments could aid law enforcement officials by providing ammunition to prosecute the traffickers and criminals behind the killing of protected wildlife. A conservation biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle named Samuel Wasser coauthored the study and is hopeful that it could help lead to the cartels behind the trafficking.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Tracking illegal ivory- UW biologist Sam Wasser&#39;s explains about using <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DNA</a> to reveal ivory trafficking networks, and creating data that can help &#39;nail&#39; poaching kingpins. <a href=""></a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ivory</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WildlifeWednesday</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#elephants</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#poaching</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#UW</a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Kiyomi Taguchi (@KiyomiTaguchi) <a href="">September 19, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Poachers kill as many as 40,000 elephants each year as part of the illegal international ivory trade which is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. The poachers who kill the protected wildlife then sell them to a pyramid of traffickers who coordinate the trade with a series of sources that smuggle the products around the world. When traffickers are arrested, they are usually charged for the ivory they are caught smuggling but it is difficult for prosecutors to link them to the larger organized cartels.

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The new method of DNA analysis could help prosecutors by providing them with evidence linking them to other poachers and traffickers. It could also help lead to tougher penalties for those poachers who are caught smuggling illegal animal products and help law enforcement tie the operations together, according to Wasser. He and his colleagues have used DNA from elephant tusks and feces in the past to link trafficked tusks to particular poaching hotspots in central and southeastern Africa.

When Wasser and his fellow researchers were sampling confiscated ivory they noticed that tusks from the same animal often went to separate shipments linking them to the same source. Wasser's latest study saw he and his team sample the DNA of tusks from 38 different seizures of ivory. They then set out hunting for genetically identical tusks within that pool. 11 of the seizures were made between December 2011 to May 2014 and the researchers found a number of links between them.

Two of the shipments contained genetically matched tusks that were seized from the same port within a short period of time. Other shipments contained genetically matched tusks that were matched to multiple other shipments providing an overall picture of where the illegal goods were coming from.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">PROF SAM WASSER: We were able to identify what we believe are the 3 major cartels shipping <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Elephant</a> tusks out of Africa. They operate out of Mombasa, <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Kenya</a>; <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Entebbe</a>, <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Uganda</a>; and Lome, <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Togo</a>. <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DNA</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Science</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Tourism</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Conservation</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Ivory</a> <a href=""></a> FILE PHOTO <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Louis Jadwong (@Jadwong) <a href="">September 20, 2018</a></blockquote>

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The matching of the tusks to various shipments collectively indicates the presence of three major cartels running the illegal trade in Africa. Wasser says the DNA study points to the fact that the three cartels sometimes even work together. The team of researchers is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which is currently working with foreign governments to crack down on the illegal trade.

Investigators are stepping up their efforts to find and prosecute the people profiting from the trade and prosecute them for financial crimes as well as seize their assets. That is where the new technique comes in especially handy. " Homeland Security special agent John Brown said in a press conference, "The connection between multiple seizures gives us a lot more evidence to look at and data to mine as far as the financial connections and the financial transactions that took place to facilitate these illegal shipments."

The researchers also discovered that shipments with matching tusks would often pass through the same port within ten months of each other. In a conference call, Wasser told reporters, "This suggests the same major cartel was responsible for both shipments. We were able to identify what we believe are the three major cartels shipping tusks out of Africa."

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Wasser added that the three suspected cartels operate out of Mombasa, Kenya, Entebbe, Uganda, as well as Lome and Togo. One of the chief "kingpins" in the ivory trade is a man named Feisal Mohamed Ali of Kenya. Feisal was recently released from a 20-year prison term after his case was overturned by a judge citing "gaps" in the evidence used to convict him. He was originally arrested in 2014 in Tanzania in connection with a two-ton ivory shipment consisting of 228 whole tusks and 74 partial tusks discovered in a warehouse in Mombassa.

Investigators say the value of the ivory seized in from Feisal is worth an estimated $4.2 million. "There is a great deal of evidence we have uncovered – as have others — that link him to multiple seizures," Wasser said. "Our hope is that the data presented in this paper will help strengthen the case against this cartel." Wasser and his team's analysis of the DNA were "instrumental" in the conviction of another ivory smuggler named Emile N'Bouke who goes by "The Boss" (Le Patron). N'Bouke was known as the largest ivory trafficker in West Africa before he was handed the maximum sentence allowed under Togo law in 2014.

He was found guilty of possessing 1,500 pounds (700 kilograms) of ivory and sentenced to a mere two years in jail. Since that time, Wasser's DNA analysis has linked N'Bouke to several other criminal cartels in Africa. "We had not yet developed the links between all these different seizures," Wasser said. "This is a case where we wish we had this data sooner." A special agent in the US Department of Homeland Security and country representative for HSI Nairobi named John Brown confirmed Wasser's DNA analysis has been "important" in multiple ongoing investigations.

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2 Comment/s
Anonymous No. 37492 2018-09-20 : 11:04

I didn't even know there were that many left alive

Anonymous No. 37515 2018-09-20 : 16:22

Time to assassinate poachers.

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