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How Forensic Technology Can Help Fight the Ivory Trade

Here at the CITES conference in Johannesburg, almost anyone can tell you that African elephants are being slaughtered at a rate of tens of thousands per year. There are lots of approaches on how to solve the problem: reducing demand for ivory, providing alternative livelihoods for would-be poachers, training anti-poaching units—and forensics.

Sam Wasser of the University of Washington uses DNA testing to identify where the ivory confiscated in major seizures comes from. This makes it easier to know where law enforcement and anti-poaching efforts should be concentrated.

“The best way to stop the killing is attacking the trade at the source,” Wasser said at a panel Thursday. “That’s what our DNA work is trying to address.”

He started by creating a DNA reference map for elephant populations across Africa, genotyping 16 different genetic markers. Then when a law enforcement agency seizes a shipment of ivory, they send him the ivory to test. He compares the DNA from the seized ivory to the reference map to determine exactly where that ivory came from.

Over the last decade, almost all of it has come from Tanzania or surrounding areas (about 78 percent), or from the the TRIDOM area of Congo basin rainforest (22 percent). (Learn more: DNA From Elephant Dung, Tusks Reveals Poaching Hot Spots)

It’s also important to know how long ago the ivory was taken, says Thure Cerling at the University of Utah. He uses radiocarbon dating of the same ivory Wasser tests to determine when the elephant was killed.

During the spate of open-air nuclear tests in the 1960s, a lot of carbon-14 was released. The amount of that isotope has decreased each year since, and so by comparing how much carbon-14 is in an elephant tusk to the “bomb curve,” which shows how much carbon-14 was in the air at any particular time, Cerling can tell when exactly the elephant died.

“The distribution of these ages can inform suggestions on how this [poaching] network may be operating,” he said.

C4ADS, a Washington, D.C.,-based organization stitches all that information (and more) together using data analysis software called Palantir. They compile police records, business and tax registries, bills of lading, satellite imagery, and ship-tracking data to track transnational criminal networks worldwide. They feed all that information into Palantir to get a basic map of a network, then they embark on an investigation using open-source information. The more data they feed in, the more complete the network becomes. This allows C4ADS analysts to discover links between different ivory seizures and gain an understanding of the players involved in the crime.

The use of forensics for fighting wildlife crime is proving invaluable.

“By combining all this information,” says Wasser, “A whole new world starts to unfold.”