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The black-market trade in ivory drives elephant poaching. (Credit: Gary M. Stoltz / USFWS)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – DNA tests conducted by researchers from the University of Washington helped bring down one of Africa’s biggest kingpins in the illegal elephant ivory trade, but the scientists say they’re just getting started. Now they’re ramping up their efforts to go after more of the smugglers, and extending their efforts to protect other endangered species as well.

“We are now hot on the trail of probably the largest ivory dealer in Africa,” Samuel Wasser, head of UW’s Center for Conservation Biology, said here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

Wasser declined to comment further on that investigation – but it’s worth noting that authorities in Tanzania have arrested several high-profile figures in the ivory trade, including the so-called “the Queen of Ivory” and “The Devil.” DNA evidence could well play a part in the prosecutions, just as it did in the conviction of Togo’s Emile N’Bouke in 2014. Wasser’s DNA data provided the key for cracking the case.

For 15 years, Wasser and his colleagues have been building a DNA database that links elephant populations across Africa to the tons of illegally exported ivory that are being seized every year.

The African ivory trade was completely banned in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, also known as CITES. But starting in 1997, pressure from importing and exporting countries led CITES to relax the ban under limited circumstances. That provided an opening for poachers, smugglers, traders and corrupt officials to get around the limits.

More than 50 tons of ivory were seized in 2013, but that’s thought to represent just 10 percent of the total illegal trade, Wasser said. The figures suggest that 50,000 elephants are being killed every year, and “this number is conservative,” Wasser said. That’s a scary thought for conservationists, who estimate that there are only about 450,000 elephants left in all of Africa.

How much money is at stake? The going rate for raw ivory is about $1,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), said Allan Thornton, president of the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency. But by the time the ivory is carved into retail items, including the Japanese name seals known as hankos as well as ornamental gun and knife handles, that value rises to $6,000 per kilogram. At that rate, the illegal trade amounts to anywhere between $300 million and $3 billion.

Some conservationists want to see the ivory ban strengthened, but Wasser focuses on the supply side of the problem rather than the demand side.

“We need to stop the killing, and we need to stop the killing at the source,” he said.

In a study published last year by the journal Science, Wasser and his colleagues laid out the facts that underlie the illegal ivory trade: They compared DNA recovered from seized ivory with a database of genetic signatures drawn from elephant tissue and hair, and even from elephant dung. (That strategy has earned Wasser a nickname he now embraces with pride: “the guru of doo-doo.”)

Elephant hotspot map
Elephant habitats as charted by the IUCN Red List are shown on this map of sub-Saharan Africa in yellow. The red circles indicate poaching hot spots in west and east Africa. (Data: IUCN and Wasser et al., Science)

The researchers found that elephant poaching is concentrated in two regions of Africa: a forested area that takes in parts of Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic; and a savannah area in Tanzania and Mozambique. Much of the ivory makes its way out of Africa via Mombasa in Kenya.

The DNA analysis of the ivory is good enough to identify where the elephant was killed to within 190 miles (300 kilometers), Wasser said. That makes it possible to trace poachers as they move to new killing grounds. For example, Tanzania’s poachers appear to be migrating northward toward Kenya’s game reserves, and Zimbabwe may loom as a future hot spot in southern Africa.

“When we look at recent large seizures, it gives us very actionable information about where the next poaching event is occurring,” Wasser said. “One of the biggest problems we’re facing is getting these seizures very, very recently. It’s often we don’t get [samples from] a seizure for a year, sometimes two years, sometimes four years after it occurs.”

Speeding up the pace of DNA analysis can provide investigators with a fresher trail to follow, Wasser said.

At the same time, the techniques that Wasser is using to match up smuggled ivory with elephant habitats are being extended to another widely smuggled species known as the pangolin or scaly anteater.

The pangolin is an animal about the size of a cocker spaniel that looks like a cross between your garden-variety anteater and an armadillo. Its skin is covered with scales that are made of keratin, the same protein found in hair. Pangolins are supposedly protected under Appendix II of the CITES convention, but they’re a popular target for poaching. In Asia, their meat is prized as a delicacy, and their scales are used for medicinal purposes. Chinese authorities seized 11.5 tons of pangolin carcasses in a bust last October.

“It is among the most, if not the most poached animal in the world,” Wasser said.

One of the researchers in Wasser’s UW program, Hyeon Jeong Kim, is working on a geographic DNA database for eight species of pangolins, four from Asia and four from Africa. The elephant database took 15 years to compile. Kim, whose project won $10,000 in the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, is aiming to produce a similar database for pangolins in just one year. DNA samples will be gathered from museum collections – and from the field, with the aid of dung-sniffing dogs.

“We’re scaling it up,” Kim said … without a hint of irony.

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