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Scientists say elephant tusk DNA can expose poaching networks

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Every year, tens of thousands of African elephants are killed for their tusks, according to one estimate. Their ivory is packed into shipping containers and transported to ports throughout Africa.

SAMUEL WASSER: When you open one of those containers, they often have what we call a cover load, something else that - to disguise the ivory. It could be timber. It could be coffee. It could be plastic waste.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington has been tracking these shipments for more than a decade. A few years back, his team sequenced the DNA in seized ivory, which allowed them to link shipments from three large ivory-smuggling cartels.

NADWORNY: Now, they've expanded the scope of that work, studying DNA from more than 4,000 tusks in 49 large ivory seizures.

WASSER: And the connectivity that we got of an individual transnational, criminal organization to seizures was absolutely mind-blowing. I mean, some of them are connected to 30 different seizures.

NADWORNY: The new analysis is out this week in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

WASSER: When we make these connections genetically linked to seizures to one another, that then tells law enforcement that all the physical evidence they're collecting can be tied together and joined into a bigger whole, and it builds a much, much stronger investigation.

KELLY: Special Agent John Brown III of the Department of Homeland Security is a co-author. He says the DNA evidence can also help governments collaborate to prosecute these crimes.

JOHN BROWN III: When you see that connectivity, you're able to, you know, reach out to those other jurisdictions and say, hey; look. You know, through our analysis - DNA analysis - we've identified a connection to your seizure.

NADWORNY: Wasser says the work aided in the arrest of two ivory traffickers in Seattle last November. And he says if you stop the traffickers, you sever the connection between the poachers and buyers overseas.

KELLY: Kenya-based ecologist Benson Okita of Save the Elephants was not involved in the study. He says the DNA work is helpful, but there are other obstacles out there.

BENSON OKITA: If there's corruption in some of these areas where this illegal trafficking is occurring, then it becomes really difficult to even arrest or prosecute successfully.

NADWORNY: Okita says another issue is economic and ensuring that local communities benefit from elephant conservation.

OKITA: That's where the future lies, I think, in making people understand that it is a resource that can be still useful if well managed and well conserved.

KELLY: If all those pieces come together, it'll help ensure a future for the 400,000 African elephants that remain today.

(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "DEPARTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.