Using DNA to track elephant poachers


Al Jazeera America/TechKnow

Date Published

In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of African elephants have been killed by poachers, who take their tusks and sell the ivory for profit. Stopping this crime has proven difficult, as the ivory is often sold in countries far away from where the poaching occurs, transported and controlled by transnational crime syndicates.

Leading the search to find the source of the poaching is Samuel Wasser, a former CSI investigator who examines the DNA found in ivory seizures. We caught up with Samuel to discuss the importance of elephants in nature, why it’s so difficult to track the source of the poaching, and why he remains hopeful about the future of elephants in Africa. 

Editor’s Note: The following was adapted from an interview with Marita Davison. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Marita Davison, “TechKnow” contributor: I know that you receive shipments of seized ivory from governments in Africa. What are you doing with those shipments, what are you looking at in the samples that you are taking?

Samuel Wasser: There is poaching occurring all over Africa and what we are really trying to do is figure out where are the major poaching hotspots across Africa, the ones that are being driven by major transnational crime. The way we do that is we use DNA to analyze large ivory seizures in Africa. By large, they have to be over half a ton and that tends to be worth about a minimum of a million dollars on the retail market.

MD: Just for reference, a half a ton of ivory, how many elephants is that roughly?

SW: Well the best way to estimate that is one kilo of ivory is one elephant…so half a ton of ivory is 500 elephants.

MD: So these are big seizures?

SW: Big seizures and that’s the minimum. We have seizures that are over 6 tons, so that’s 6,000 elephants.  

MD: So walk me through the process…when you receive a shipment and you receive your samples, what are you doing with them and what are you hoping to find?

SW: We do this seizure work with the International Consortium for Combating Wildlife Crimes, Interpol, the CITES Secretariat, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organization, the World Bank, and we also do this work affiliated with the State Dept…so we’re trying to really figure out for everybody where are these sources occurring. But getting these seizures is not easy because there is a lot of politics involved, so one of the first steps in monitoring these seizures is making sure myself or one of my collaborators is working with these entities to get us the seizure.  The second thing is these seizures are big, and it costs about $120 to analyze one tusk so we’re not going to analyze all the tusks in the seizure. We want to sample it in such a way that all the geographic locations are represented. 

University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser reviewing findings with lab assistant

MD: How do you ensure that you are getting a geographic representative sample?

SW: All these tusks have different features on them based on their external characteristics. White color, orange color, if it’s burned, sometimes the tusks are cut into sections, etc… [Once] we’ve got them all separated into groups we take about 200 samples out and what we do is we take them randomly across each group…

MD: Has there been a lot of law enforcement activity, have you had convictions?

SW: About 6 months ago, we had our first conviction which was terribly exciting. He was in Togo and he was allegedly the biggest ivory dealer in West Africa. Interpol and a group called LAGA working with the Togo government raided his warehouse and there was 700 kilos of ivory in there. He had 60 whole tusks, and we analyzed those 60 and showed that it came from many countries, from West Africa to Sierra Leone all the way to DRC. He said [in court] “I had a legitimate business for 30 years, this was all old ivory and it’s all from Togo.” The prosecutor stood up and said “no it’s not” and he took out our DNA evidence saying it’s coming from multiple countries. So he got convicted. 

MD: From an ecological standpoint, why are elephants so important?

SW: Elephants are the largest land animal on earth and they have been evolving in Africa for millions and millions of years. Many species have co-evolved a dependency on the natural disturbances that elephants cause. They are what we call a “keystone species,” which means if you take them out there will be a huge ripple effect on other species.

MD:  I’ve heard the urgency in your voice and I know this is a big deal. I just wonder on a personal level for you, to what extent do you wrestle with despair with the situation and to what extent do you embrace hope?

SW: Well I couldn’t do this work if I wasn’t an idealist. It’s horrifying to me what’s going on. I love elephants and I spent many years on the ground watching them and seeing these seizures over and over again year after year and it is really hard. But I have to say I think we are making an impact and that’s what really drives me. I created this tool and I had this idea 15 years and I just didn’t give up and it turned out to be so much more powerful than I ever dreamed. I feel like we can solve this problem and it’s going to be very applicable to other kinds of wildlife crimes and other kinds of transnational crimes.