DNA sleuths bolster case against three ivory cartels

September 21, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:56 am IST - Tampa

Genetic testing on smuggled elephant tusks is helping investigators find evidence to bring traffickers to book

Set in bone:Confiscated elephant tusks, with square holes where a part of the tusk were taken for DNA sampling.AFPAFP

Set in bone:Confiscated elephant tusks, with square holes where a part of the tusk were taken for DNA sampling.AFPAFP

DNA tests on smuggled elephant tusks have identified three major ivory cartels in Africa and are helping investigators bolster the criminal cases against some of the most dangerous traffickers, researchers said on Wednesday.

Around 40,000 African elephants are killed every year for their tusks, which are illegally traded as part of a multi-billion dollar industry that extends from Africa to Asia and beyond.

Traffickers conceal their ivory in shipping containers — but inspectors peer inside just one percent of the one billion containers sent around the world each year.

Where physical inspections fall short, genetic testing has come to the rescue, said the report in the journal Science Advances .

Lead author Samuel Wasser, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, said an “important breakthrough” came when experts realized about half of the tusks were not in pairs. Often, one was missing.

So they ran DNA tests on 38 seizures from 2006 to 2015 to find out where the tusks came from. They found 26 of the 38 matched a tusk seized at a different time.

They also discovered that two shipments with matching tusks would frequently pass through the same port, usually within 10 months of each other.

Making links

“This suggests the same major cartel was responsible for both shipments,” Mr. Wasser told reporters on a conference call.

“We were able to identify what we believe are the three major cartels shipping tusks out of Africa.”

They operate out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lome, Togo, according to Mr. Wasser.

Since most ivory traffickers face prosecution for a single seizure, being able to connect individual traffickers to multiple large seizures can raise the stakes, allowing them to be charged with major transnational crimes and face tougher penalties.

Mr. Wasser said his team’s research has been able to link far more ivory to certain criminals. Chief among them is ivory “kingpin” Feisal Mohamed Ali, a Kenyan national who had his 20-year jail term overturned earlier this year by a judge who cited “gaps” in the evidence against him.

Ali was arrested in Tanzania in 2014 in connection with two tons of ivory — 228 whole tusks and 74 pieces — found in a Mombasa warehouse. Authorities put the value of the ivory at $4.2 million. His case has been referred to a lower court, said Mr. Wasser.

“There is a great deal of evidence we have uncovered — as have others — that links him to multiple seizures,” Mr. Wasser said.

“Our hope is that the data presented in this paper will help strengthen the case against this cartel.”

He said DNA analysis from his lab was “instrumental” in the conviction of another ivory smuggler, Emile N’Bouke, nicknamed “The Boss” (Le Patron), allegedly the largest ivory trafficker in west Africa.

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