Science helps police close in on ivory cartels

Genetic analysis has helped to identify three major ivory cartels operating out of Africa responsible for 70 per cent of the $4-billion US global ivory trade.

Researchers determined that three different cartels control 70 per cent of all the ivory shipments.

Approximately 415,000 elephants are all that remain in Africa. (Karl Ammann)

The illegal ivory trade is a global industry worth $4 billion US annually. Now, research from the University of Washington is closing in on the biggest cartels in the business using genetics.

The new study, released yesterday in Science Advances, used genetic analysis to track the origins of 38 large ivory seizures made around the world between 2006 and 2015.

Scientist were able to match up many pairs of ivory tusks through gene analysis. They were then able to trace back to where the tusks were taken.

"In every case, the two shipments with matching tusks passed through a common port. They were shipped close together in time and they showed high overlap in the genetically determined origins of the tusks," said Samuel Wasser, conservation biologist and senior author on this study from the University of Washington.

"These three characteristics suggest that the same major trafficking cartel was actually responsible for shipping both of the shipments."

Three cartels control 70 per cent of ivory

Researchers determined that three different cartels control 70 per cent of all ivory shipments, based in Entebbe, Uganda; Mombasa, Kenya; and Lomé, Togo in West Africa.

This information is crucial for prosecutors and law enforcement that now have a better idea of the scale and locations of the cartels that control the shipping. The focus is now on the small number of brokers and shippers that move the majority of ivory out of Africa and into Asian markets.

The illegal ivory trade is a global industry worth $4 billion US annually. (Malaysia Department of National Parks)

From 2011 to 2014, during the height of the illegal ivory trade, almost 40,000 elephants were killed. That's 10 per cent of the remaining elephant population in Africa.

Scientists are now working closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, through a department called Homeland Security Investigations, to establish networks with the other wildlife officials across Africa and Asia to try to tighten the net around trafficking operations.

'We have the opportunity to build a much stronger case'

In 2016, a major player in the ivory trade, Feisal Mohamed Ali, was convicted in Mombasa for trafficking one shipment of ivory. Previous data gathered by Wasser aided in the prosecution. But last month his conviction was overturned because of irregularities in his trial.

"He was tried. The data that we provided was important to that case. But he's since appealed and [was] acquitted," said Wasser. "Now, because of the connections that we've continued to gather, we have the opportunity to build a much stronger case against him, as well as his co-conspirators, all of whom were acquitted."

While some of the evidence from the original conviction has since been lost or destroyed, Wasser is confident that the body of evidence gathered through this research will help to convict the traffickers.

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of


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