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Cartels of ivory smugglers were calculated from DNA

Tusks, confiscated in 2015 in Singapore, after sorting by pairs in accordance with the method developed by Vasser and his colleagues
Center for Conservation Biology / University of Washington

Most of the elephant tusks illegally exported from Africa are associated with the activities of only three large cartels, scientists from the United States, Kenya and Malaysia found. Comparing the genetic data of the confiscated tusks with the genetic map of elephant populations, and also taking into account the time and port of dispatch, the researchers managed to expose the three major exporters. It turned out that traders often send pair tusks in different lots, which allowed to find the links between individual seizures. The study is published in  Science .

The rapid growth of world trade has allowed transnational criminal networks to hide their contraband among a billion containers shipped around the world annually. Ports can check about one percent of containers, which makes smuggling virtually safe. Ivory trading in Africa has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry that leads to the death of 40,000 elephants a year. In total there are 400 thousand elephants left in the world.

In 2015, Samuel Wasser (Samuel Wasser) from the University of Washington and his colleagues were able to identify two main centers of poaching in Africa, comparing haplogroups in seized tusks with a map of the distribution of haplogroups of elephants. This map was created by analyzing the samples of the litter collected throughout Africa. Thanks to the authors’ works, it was found that most tusks were obtained by poachers from northern Gabon in West Africa. Since 2010, Gabon has lost 60 percent of its elephant population. However, poachers are difficult to stop. Now scientists have tried to tie individual tusks together to find large cartels of smugglers.

In total, the authors examined 38 confiscated batches, tried to visually find all pairs of tusks, focusing on color, diameter and other external signs, in order to avoid unnecessary analyzes from the same individual. Noticing that more than half of the tusks in the party do not have a pair, the researchers decided to compare the genetic data with all other tusks from other parties. The pair for 2.25% of the tusks was found in other parties, which made it possible to link these parties to each other. Parties sent from the same port at about the same time, and also showed a genetic similarity, the authors attributed to a single trading cartel. The data obtained showed that the majority of the parties belong to only three cartels that illegally traded tusks in 2011-2014, when the ivory trade was at its peak.These data will become evidence of the involvement of cartels, who now judge for single cases of smuggling, to much more large-scale crimes, and also can help to identify the remaining cartels.

Transnational trade associated with wildlife is often associated with other crimes. During the investigation of tusk contraband, one of the key participants in the cartel that was caught was also involved in the transportation of the largest parties of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine in East Africa. To eliminate obstacles, criminals killed three thousand rangers patrolling protected areas in the last five years.

One of the important aspects of combating poaching is the decline in demand. It is important to understand that poachers and traders create myths that promote demand. Such a myth was supposedly the action of the horn of a rhinoceros as an aphrodisiac, and now it is sold as a cure for cancer and its cost soared to 60 thousand dollars. Pangolins, considered a meat delicacy, began to be used as a medicine. Demand for them soared, in China there are even some hospitals where their scales are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, although there is no evidence that it helps.

Earlier, we  wrote about the fact that groups of elephants, affected by poachers, change their habitat. Elephants were able to avoid dangerous places, especially the youth groups were flexible.

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