A shipment of forest timber traveled around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean before it arrived at the Hong Kong dockyards two years ago. During a routine X-ray examination, customs officials discovered an even more lucrative cargo hidden behind a false wall: 605 elephant tusks.
The $8 million seizure was the largest ivory catch in Hong Kong since a 1989 agreement banned the international ivory trade. Ivory seizures are on the rise, particularly in Southeast Asia; the Hong Kong catch was only about half the size of the largest in recent years. At least 68 tons of ivory have been confiscated over the past decade. The cause: illegal ivory has quadrupled in value since 2004, and anti-poaching resources are typically stretched thin.
Law enforcement officials investigating the source of the Hong Kong ivory had no clue where the stash originated before leaving Douala, a port city in the west African nation of Cameroon. DNA technology, however, was able to verify that many of the tusks once belonged to forest elephants that lived in southern Gabon, near the Republic of Congo border.
Extracting elephant DNA from confiscated ivory could be an important tool to take wildlife investigations a step farther and to stop poaching at its source. Such expensive forensic work may become necessary to protect dwindling elephant populations and curb the illegal ivory market before it grows completely out of control.
"In big seizures, there's a very strong tendency to ship ivory out of a different country than where it's poached... It's a bit of a red herring," said Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology and the lead author of the study, published in this month's issue of Conservation Biology. "The methods we developed are very important in that regard because it focuses where the poaching is ongoing."
Wasser's team tested ivory from the Hong Kong sting and from a 6.5 ton ivory seizure in Singapore in 2002. After analyzing the samples' genes and comparing them against a complex elephant DNA map that covers much of Africa, the researchers were able to trace the Hong Kong samples to elephant populations in Gabon. The Singapore samples were linked to populations in southern Africa, mostly in Zambia.
Although some DNA source locations were scattered, the findings point to much more specific origins of illegal poaching than were previously available. The findings also contradict previous assumptions that ivory dealers would purchase tusks from throughout Africa as they become available. Instead, Wasser's paper suggests that "crime syndicates were targeting specific populations for intense exploitation, hitting them hard and fast to satisfy the demands of a particular consignment."
After it was revealed that most of the ivory seized in Singapore came from elephants in Zambia, that country's director of wildlife was replaced and its courts began to impose harsher sentences for ivory smugglers. "At the time of the analyses, authorities thought the ivory came from Tanzania and/or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our analyses refocused the investigation, allowed authorities to point the finger at Zambia and get them to do something," Wasser said.
Despite the benefits of forensic testing for future investigations, funding for wildlife enforcement is limited. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international body that oversees the ivory ban, received $7.5 million in support this year. This is about $2.5 million more than a decade ago, but it is not enough to support DNA investigations in developing nations.
The international police organization INTERPOL has developed an agency to facilitate global wildlife crime investigations, but it too lacks sufficient funding. "We're not in a position, given we have 186 countries [to oversee], to start to pay for their evidence handling on a case-by-case basis. We're certainly not a bank," said Peter Younger, the INTERPOL wildlife crime program manager.
A few laboratories across the world - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's forensic lab in Oregon and Wasser's Center for Conservation Biology, for instance - have agreed to pay for DNA testing of stolen ivory and other wildlife evidence, such as illegally shipped old-growth trees. Wasser's lab paid $300 per sample to analyze the seized African ivory and construct its DNA map. In the 10 years it took to create the map, the lab processed more than 1,000 samples.
The limited funding for enforcement is costing elephants their lives. Before the ivory trade ban, poachers were killing about 7.4 percent of the global elephant population each year for tusks and other body parts. Now the rate is 8 percent, and populations are only getting smaller. Wasser's team estimates that elephants in sub-Saharan Africa could be "virtually extinct" across their range by 2020.
"Even though the number of elephants left is a third of what it was prior to the ban, and a higher proportion are being killed than before, you'd think the alarm bell should be going off," Wasser said. "As long as the public is so clueless about the situation, there is no incentive for governments with money to pay for it."