It helped catch serial killers. Can he also stop elephant poachers?

Cambodian law enforcement officials received a tip from US Department of Homeland Security investigators. At the Phnom Penh freight ter...


Cambodian law enforcement officials received a tip from US Department of Homeland Security investigators. At the Phnom Penh freight terminal, a freight container – believed to be carrying timber legally harvested from an African country – was unloaded for inspection. Officials opened large logs and discovered more than a ton of illegal elephant ivory and other animal parts, hidden in paraffin in the hollowed out wood.

This loot, recovered about five years ago, represented only a small fraction of the 500 tonnes of raw ivory shipped each year from Africa to illegal markets in China and Southeast Asia.

Nothing can bring back the elephants that were killed for their tusks. But one technique of genetic investigation, family tracing, could help reverse the tide against illicit taking of elephant parts and other wild animals like the Phnom Penh lot. Detailed Researchers in the journal Nature Human Behavior Monday how they used the tool to link hundreds of individual tusks recovered from dozens of large shipments of illegal ivory, providing detailed insight into how and where global criminal networks operate.

While the technique has been used in many recent human criminal cases, Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington and author of the paper, said this is the first time it has been applied to animals and global environmental crime.

John Brown III, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations and also author of the paper, said Dr Wasser’s team’s approach has helped wildlife trafficking investigators around the world “see the links and identify the largest network”.

Analyzing a pattern over time, he added, is far more useful than investigating a single crime. “It’s a huge challenge to connect the dots in a one-off survey,” Mr Brown said. Additionally, linking a smuggler to multiple ivory holds can help prosecutors build stronger cases and impose stiffer penalties.

Every year, around 50,000 African elephants are killed, threatening the future of the continent’s elephant populations. Poachers in African countries generally sell the ivory to intermediaries who in turn resell it to large export groups, experts in the transport of illegal goods.

These groups rely on ocean-going container ships to move their contraband cargo. Given the huge volume of maritime trade – around 11 billion tonnes per year – content inspection is difficult and expensive.

Dr. Wasser’s team set out to solve this problem by adapting the tools used in human forensics. Investigators sometimes use family tracing to find an attacker by identifying probable relatives in a DNA database. One of the most famous cases that used this method led to the conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo, known as the golden state killer.

In the study, the researchers sampled 4,320 tusks from savannah and forest elephants of 49 large shipments of illegal ivory, seized by authorities between 2002 and 2019.

Dr. Wasser’s lab at the University of Washington had previously developed methods to link ivory to the genetic signatures of specific animals by modifying a tool used to extract DNA from human teeth. Once researchers have access to a shipment of confiscated ivory, they must be strategic about which tusks to collect.

“There could be 2,000 tusks, and we only take 200 per seizure because it’s expensive,” Dr Wasser said. Sampling each tusk costs about $200.

The team considers several factors to ensure a geographically representative sample and choose unique tusks. Then the scientists cut a small square at the base of each tusk – about two inches long and half an inch thick – targeting a DNA-rich layer to be analyzed in Dr. Wasser’s Seattle lab.

In the current study, the team found almost 600 genetically matched tusks, most from close elephant relatives (parent, offspring or half-siblings or half-siblings) in the seized shipments. These genetic matches allow law enforcement officials to link physical evidence from separate investigations — like cellphone records and port of origin bills of lading — to identify criminals.

“We are able to better understand how connected transnational criminal organizations are, how they operate and how they have evolved over time,” Dr. Wasser said.

The document shows a repeating pattern over 17 years of tusks of the same elephant families moving through common African ports in separate containers. Combining genetic and physical evidence, the team mapped the pattern of ports used for trafficking, the countries where elephants were poached and the links between shipments. The results suggest that the same large trafficking cartels have been operating for decades and still obtain ivory from the same places.

But the study also found that the cartels moved their export operations to less visible countries in an attempt to avoid capture. Over the 17-year period, trafficking activity shifted from the poaching hotspot of Tanzania to neighboring Kenya and then to Uganda, a landlocked country where ivory is packed in containers and transported by road or rail to the port of Mombasa, Kenya.

After 2015, export activity resumed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. “We saw that the DRC was the next export hotspot to come,” Dr Wasser said.

This search contributed to the arrest in November in Edmonds, Washington, of two Congolese wildlife traffickers. They risk more than 20 years in prison.

“We have the opportunity to weed out the bigwigs once and for all,” Dr Wasser said, adding that preventing ivory from coming into transit “is the biggest impact you can have in dismantling and disrupting the trade”.

Dr. Wasser builds a large DNA database on seized ivory. And it’s growing. Ivory confiscated in the future will be analyzed and added so that links to past illegal activities can be established.

“What we learned from elephants opened up a whole new area of ​​investigation,” he said. This approach is now applied to the illegal timber trade as well as to pangolins, the most poached mammal in the world.

It is believed that the leaders of the criminal groups who sell ivory and pangolins also smuggle drugs, weapons and people. In the future, investigators using this evidence hope that more animals can be saved – and organized crime can be reduced – thanks to the genetic heritage of poached African elephants.

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Newsrust - US Top News: It helped catch serial killers. Can he also stop elephant poachers?
It helped catch serial killers. Can he also stop elephant poachers?
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