Just three ivory cartels are behind most of the slaughter of Africa’s beleaguered elephants.
African elephants are being slaughtered at an almost industrial scale with between 30,000 and 40,000 pachyderms gunned down throughout their ranges each year for their tusks, which are highly prized as ornaments a continent away in China, Vietnam and elsewhere. During the decade from 2005 to 2015 alone, poachers killed more than 110,000 wild African elephants, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Who is doing all this slaughter? The answer, according to a study conducted by geneticists and published in the journal Science Advances, is three organized crime groups. These unscrupulous ivory cartels — based in Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo — are behind most of the mass killings of Africa’s beleaguered elephants in a $4 billion global industry.
The researchers have reached this conclusion after analyzing DNA samples from elephant tusks seized from illegal trafficking shipments. What they learned is that the traffickers rarely place the two tusks from the same animals in the same shipments. Rather, they send them separately, or “unpaired” in technical parlance, in different shipments dispatched from different places in Africa.
“Tusks (from different animals) were paired on the basis of similarities in their color, diameters at the base (where the tusks exit the jaw), and, most importantly, the distance from the base of the tusk to gum line (a highly visible line marking where the tusk protrudes from the lip of the elephant),” the researchers explain.
“We hypothesized that tusk pairs from the same animal often become separated en route from the kill site to export location, resulting in the two tusks being shipped in separate consignments,” they added.
This finding indicates that the ivory smuggling syndicates often cooperate so as to foil investigators. Poachers, who often operate independently, sell their ivory to middlemen who then pass tusks on to cartels which collect them into shipments by the ton.
“It costs between $25 and $30 for a bullet to kill a single elephant, so where are these poachers getting enough bullets to kill 1,000 animals?” says the study’s lead researcher Samuel Wasser, who is director of the Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology at the University of Washington. The cartels, he added, “are giving [poachers] purchase orders and quotas to fill.”
Complicating matters is that port officials, who are routinely underfunded and at times on the take, can inspect only about 2% of the 1 billion containers that are shipped globally each year. That’s why ivory smuggling syndicates can carry on with impunity.
“To our surprise, the poachers still remain very hard to stop,” Wasser says. “What we have realized is that the poachers are difficult to find because they operate in these large areas that they know really well, and even when they’re apprehended, they only have as much ivory as they can carry.”
However, genetic forensics can unravel the workings of the cartel by both pinpointing the locations where they kill elephants and determining the extent of their reach. Such information can be used as evidence against them by the possible prosecution of people like Feisal Mohamed Ali, who is alleged to be one of the most notorious ivory traffickers in Africa.
In 2016 research by Wasser’s team was used as evidence against Feisal, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Kenya. This past August, however, Feisal was acquitted on appeal and released from prison. “Feisal was initially tried for only one seizure, and that really illustrates the power of connecting individual cartels to multiple seizures,” Wasser explains.
“Our hope,” he adds, “is that the data presented in this paper and discovered by others can help strengthen the case against this cartel.”