Tracking elephant poachers through tusks


The Daily

Date Published

Every day, about 100 elephants are killed for their ivory. It is estimated that the species will die out within the next 50 to 100 years if nothing is done to curtail the illegal ivory trade.

UW research associate professor Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, has dedicated his life to minimizing the negative impacts of humanity’s growth upon wildlife populations, with a special interest in elephant population decimation.

In order to stave off an elephant-free future, Wasser and his team have found a way to track where elephants are killed and then where the ivory is shipped from. While in Africa in the ’80s, he and a large team of researchers collected scat from all across Africa as a baseline of genetic information, which they are now using with tusks seized by authorities.

According to Celia Mailand, research scientist at Wasser’s conservation center, the project has been one of the biggest learning experiences of her life. When she started at the center as an undergrad, they didn’t know how to get the DNA out of the ivory.

Using 16 genetic markers — three more genetic markers than for humans — scientists can compare DNA from seized ivory to the baseline scat DNA in order to determine a map of hot spots where poachers work.

After killing an elephant, poachers and dealers gather the tusks into a large shipment and send them out into the world. The vast majority of tusks, according to Wasser, are shipped through Tanzania, Nigeria, and other African countries.

Recent seizures by authorities illustrate the vast nature of the ivory trade. Authorities found more than 1,100 tusks from at least 550 elephants, valued at over $5.3 million, in Hong Kong. Shipments from Togo of 1,148 tusks in July 2013 and another 569 tusks seized in one shipment in November 2012 make it clear this is business as usual.

After years of research and efforts, Wasser’s team finally has a way to track where an elephant came from based solely on the DNA remaining in tusk enamel. And their work is changing the face of enforcement.

When law enforcement seizes a shipment of tusks, a portion of the shipment is separated from other tusks and then randomly selected for testing. The authorities cut out a small cube from the tusk, package it, and process it through multiple customs agencies until finally reaching the UW for research. Once the tusk portion is at the laboratory, it is cataloged and pulverized into powder for DNA extraction. The DNA is then analyzed for the 16 genetic markers Wasser’s team derived from elephant scat in Africa.

Bruce Weir, chairman of the department of biostatistics, is part of the interdepartmental team that assists Dr. Wasser with statistical support. In order to pinpoint the location of the poached elephant, the team uses a complex algorithm to discern the closest approximation of genetic markers between the baseline and the seizure.

“To put a geographic location on the origin we need some statistical methods,” Weir said. “Instead of using miles as a measure of distance, we’re using distances between the frequencies of the genes. It’s a way of measuring distance, but using genetic information.”

By following the poaching from DNA and shipping habits from shipping manifests of illegal traders, law enforcement has been able to ramp up prosecution — whether by targeting poaching hot spots based off geographical information from Wasser’s research or using it to put smugglers and poachers behind bars due to evidence from the tusks.

As a keystone species, elephants keep the plains free of large trees and move forest seeds hundreds of miles from the parent plant giving the plant fertilizer where it leaves the seed. The ecosystems populated (and planted) by elephants, such as the tropical forests of Africa, are the second largest carbon capturing forest in the world. But the impact of ivory poachers isn’t just on the environment.

“When you first see an elephant lumbering along … they don’t look like they are very smart,” said Wasser, who would collect the skulls of elephants and other animals with his researchers so a student living in the camp could catalog them.

“[The elephants] wouldn’t pay attention to any other skull, not predators — nothing,” said Wasser. “You realize [where] the stories of elephant burial grounds, which are fictitious, [come from] … when an elephant dies they don’t leave it. You hear stories about [elephants] weeping and those are real. You realize the emotional impact from the loss of these elephants is enormous.”

According to Wasser, the proceeds from these illegal sales of ivory often go to those who the U.S. government considers to be terrorists.

With the revelations of where money from ivory sales goes, along with the other implications of extinction, the international community is finally starting to make an effort to reign in — not just regulate — the trafficking of ivory.

“I just knew I wanted to work in a job that did something, and it’s comforting — even though it’s sad … to be part of the solution,” Mailand said.

In the last several years, the tides have turned on the ivory trade. Many countries have started to burn or otherwise destroy their ivory seizures and hoards, including the main consumers of ivory in Asia and America.

For the first time, science has enabled law enforcers to take a more active role in the hunting down and prosecution of ivory poachers and traffickers. Science has swayed the minds of countries in how they deal with their stockpiles. Wasser and his team only hope it’s in time to save the elephants from extinction.