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.”


  1. Spencer
    January 1, 2:40 am

    In Thailand, you see posters from the government banning people bringing elephants in to the cities to beg for bananas, and also that ivory is illegal. But you also see three elephants walk past the poster, and past the police box with policement who ignore the oresence of the elephants (they take bribes). The law and posters say one thing, but the reality is that nothing is enforced. I assume it to be the same in Africa. The only thing that all of the big international buddies, and organizations do, is eat up funds for their stated purposes. But at the end of the line down on the bottom of the food chain where the elephants are and whether help is needed, nothing ever happens. All of these organisations just serve to consume lots of funds but they dont solve the problem. They cannot solve the problem, because they don’t deal with the corruption which exists and which is the real cause for the continued existence of the ivory trade and the abuse of elephants. All of the countries sign the agreements with United Nations and other organizations, but that is all they do. They just signed agreements to avoid sanctions. But when they go home they continue misbehaving in the same manner as before. They I’m not rich countries with Rich industries like America and Europe. And so they will take their money anyway they can. That countries need to make money and Ivory, is one of the few ways they have to get some of the money back that has all been moved to stay in the Western world. You cannot stop the ivory trade or save the elephant, with bureaucratic organiSations. All they ever do is make people who reads the front page of the magazine think that something is being done. But if you travel right to where the elephants are and go down on the street with the people in the country, you will see that all of these wildlife organizations don’t cause any changes and they never reach down to the end of the line where the actual problem exists. It’s a farce