Forensics can stop illegal trade of ivory

At CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, scientists and investigators showed how they were using forensics to fight illegal ivory trade and poaching of Africa’s elephants.

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African elephant numbers are plunging because of poaching. Scientists and investigators are using forensics to track and seize illegal ivory and stop criminals at the source.(Image: Shamin Chibba)

Shamin Chibba

The fight against elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade is getting a boost from scientists and international law enforcement, which are using forensics to stop criminals.

Speaking at the CITES CoP17 World Wildlife Conference, which ran from 24 September to 5 October in Johannesburg, Sam Wasser, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Centre for Conservation Biology, said they had created a system that helped to seize ivory in the destination country and track it to the source of the killing.

Wasser led a discussion on using forensics to combat illegal ivory trade at its source. Using DNA analysis, researchers and investigators have been able to locate the source and track major exports. “We extract DNA from ivory samples and compare them to some 26 genetic markers.”

He said that by current estimates, the African elephant could become extinct in ten years’ time. There are currently 400 000 elephants remaining in the wild and up to 40 000 are being killed by poachers every year.

Male elephant tusks weigh anything between 45kg and 80kg while female tusks are as heavy as 20kg. On the black market, 0.5kg of ivory can be sold for up to R21 000.

Illegal ivory trade was one of the five biggest organised crime networks in the world and was linked to other contraband such as cocaine and heroin, said Wasser. Most contraband is not seized in the source country. And of the 600-million port entries a year, only 2% of ship containers were checked.

“To attack the problem we need to know where the ivory is coming from, how big are the networks and how much ivory there is. To stop this, we need to track trade at its source and attack prior to export. We also need to focus law enforcement on major poaching hot spots.”

Poachers were well informed, said Wasser. They needed to know the land, make connections with rangers, know the elephants’ movements. They were also savvy when it came to exporting ivory, hiding tusks in long grain white rice sacks from Pakistan, for example.

The first step in sampling is to identify pairs of tusks, which can be a monumental task as in many cases, pairs are split in different shipments.

In one particular seizure, more than half of the tusks did not have matching pairs. “Pairs (are separated) and get shipped to different locations within a short space of time.”

However, this tells investigators that the two shipments are being shipped by the same person.

Kingpin’s arrest

In July this year, Kenyan businessman Feisal Ali Mohammed was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by a Mombasa law court after he was found guilty of illegal possession of ivory worth 44-million shillings (R6-million). He also received a fine of 20-million shillings (R2.7-million).

According to The Guardian website, a warrant for his arrest was issued in 2014 after two tons of ivory were seized from a car yard in Mombasa. He evaded capture that time.

But in October of the same year, Interpol issued a Red Notice identifying Ali as one of the world’s most wanted environmental crime fugitives. He was arrested in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania on Christmas Eve 2014 and was returned to Mombasa to face trial.

Despite Ali’s capture, Wasser said there were other major ivory smugglers who were well connected with game rangers, port authorities and the like.

Any seizure of more than half-a-ton is considered large. However, investigators regularly seize up to two tons at a time, with the largest being 4.6 tons in Singapore last May.

Smaller seizures, of up to 300 kilograms, are also made at airports. In one of the more recent seizures, airport security complied with the traffickers. “We saw some footage from Tanzania whereby a security guard switched off the X-ray machine to let through Chinese travellers with ivory going to Switzerland. They were seized in Switzerland,” said Wasser.

Poaching locations

All of the African elephants killed are concentrated within a 300km radius of two regions: 22% in Gabon and Republic of Congo in West Africa, and 78% Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa.

According to Thure Cerling, a senior scientist at IsoForensics, most of the elephants killed are younger than five years of age.

IsoForensics is an isotope analysis service that has been assessing seized tusks to determine the age of the elephants and their original habitat. “Elephants would have been killed a year before tusks are seized,” said Cerling.

He uses samples taken from the cementum, or the outside of the tusk, which is richer in DNA material.

Database links seizures

Researchers and investigators are relying on a database created by nonprofit research organisation C4ADS to track shipments – using an app called Windward – and seizures.

According to Mary Utermohlen, an analyst at C4ADS, the organisation’s ivory seizure database has more than 1 100 ivory seizures between 2009 and August 2015. “We can link ships and the people involved in those seizures. It’s one degree out so it’s quite accurate.”

Last year, C4ADS was able link two major seizures: a 3.1 ton seizure in Thailand in April 2015 and the 4.6 ton seizure in Singapore. Both came out of Mombasa, Kenya. By linking the two seizures, they began linking numerous other ivory exports.

Utermohlen spoke of a mega-network in ivory trade wherein 21 seizures contained 81.6 tons of ivory, 4.1 tons of pangolin scales, and 200 kilograms of rhino horn.

Wasser said they were trying hard to “feed into transnational investigations” by working with Interpol and other investigators. “Whether you’re pro-trade or against trade, we all want the same thing: stop the killing. That’s the fundamental thing to do right now.”