The Sherlock Holmes of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

How elephant dung was used to bring down some of the biggest cartels in ivory trafficking.
06 March 2018

Interview with 

Sam Wasser, University of Washington, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute


Elephant eye


In the illegal wildlife trade the most dangerous people involved are the criminal cartels, who usually fund the poachers and who then move it across the world. Sam Wasser is a zoologist at the University of Washington and the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and has also been dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes” of the illegal wildlife trade because he’s developed techniques to track down where animals are being poached from. Chris Smith heard about the scale of the problem from Sam...

Sam - It’s quite serious. If you just look at the ivory trade, there’s about 40,000 elephants being killed a year and only about 400,000 left in Africa, so it’s causing quite a bit of damage to the ecosystem. One of the big problems is the amount of profit of the trade and then the other factor is that much of this ivory is being shipped in large shipments, over a half ton. It’s shipped in containers and right now there’s about one billion containers moving around the world each year. You can imagine the problem is that you’ve got a huge profit margin and all you have to do if you are a transnational criminal is get your ivory containerised and get it into transit and you’ve pretty much got it made so it’s made an extremely difficult problem.

Chris - The people, as we heard from Andrew, who are actually responsible for this are not nice people?

Sam - No they’re not. There have been over 3,000 rangers killed by poachers and some people who are also looking at it at a higher level trying to get the big cartels. About 6 months ago a very well known investigator, Wayne Lotter, was murdered in Dar es Salaam and that was really devastating, and there have been others so it’s quite serious.

Chris - The strategy that you’re advocating and have helped to develop, what does it involve?

Sam - Basically, what we’re trying to do is develop ways to get the traffickers before the ivory goes into transit, because once it’s in the transit it’s so difficult to find. So we developed ways to identify the major poaching hotspots in Africa, as well as the major cartels and how many different shipments they’re involved in. The way we do that is, in the mid 1990s, my lab was one of the labs that developed ways to get DNA from elephant dung. So we could get dung across the entire continent of Africa and map the genetics of elephants across Africa.

We then developed ways to get DNA out of ivory and so now, when there’s a large seizure, we are able to get the genotype from those samples and then match it to our DNA reference map and we can tell, with very high accuracy, where the elephants are actually being poached. One of the things that really amazed us was that we have analysed about 50 large seizures over the years and, in the last decade, virtually 100% of these large seizures which are over a half ton, which is 70% of all seizures made, are coming from just two places.

Chris - Right. So you genetically fingerprint the dung so you’ve got a genetic map of Africa, you genetically fingerprint any ivory you encounter and that tells you where in Africa it’s come from. That enables you to focus some of your anti-poaching efforts in that area but also it give you more insight into how these gangs might be operating?

Sam - Yes. We identified the major poaching hotspots in Africa and Africa’s a big place. You can fit five United States in there, for example, so being able to say the majority of the really big cartels or transnational criminals are operating in two places is very important.

But the other thing that happened in the process was we had a very interesting breakthrough, when we’re sampling these seizures there could be 1,000 or 2,000 tusks in there and we don’t want to sample all of them so we developed ways to subsample them. The first thing we do is try to find the pair of tusks from the same elephant so we can remove one and not analyse it, but we noticed that over half the tusks in these big seizures didn’t have a pair.

Then I started wondering well where’s the other pair? I started looking between seizures and I found that very often when poachers are poaching, they’re selling it to a middleman, moving it to the big cartels and often the two tusks get seperated and they get shipped out in successive shipments. We were able to track those and to show that whenever you get two tusks going in seperate seizures, they’re always going through the same port, close in time, and the distribution of ivory in those are always highly an overlap that suggests the same guy is actually packing both seizures and you get a whole linkchain of matching pairs of seizures that link you back to the same cartel. In doing that, we’ve now been able to identify the three biggest ivory cartels in Africa.

Chris - Has that actually made a difference? Have you actually achieved any success stories in terms of convictions and so on and making a dent in this trade off the back of that knowledge?

Sam - Absolutely. The first conviction we got was in Togo in West Africa. A man named Emile N'bouke who was believed to be one of the largest traffickers in West Africa. He was convicted; he got the highest sentence that Togo offers which, unfortunately, was two years and he’s already out, so that was a bittersweet story.

Most recently, the biggest trafficker that we helped bring down - of course a lot of people were involved in this - was Feisal Mohamed Ali, who was convicted for 20 years in Mombasa. We connected him to 13 different large ivory seizures and that was pretty remarkable.

We have another person in custody now in Entebbe, Uganda. He has been linked to three other major seizures but he keeps postponing his trial, or someone does.

The other thing that is really kind of alarming is there have been a number of cases now where some seizures that we have identified that are incredibly connected to many other seizures. Two of them in particular: one never went to court; the other one was found not guilty which was - I can’t even say how shocked I was that that happened, so yeah.

Chris - Have you ever been threatened or do you worry? 

Sam - Sometimes. But not really that much. I have been threatened but, you know, I’m passionate about what I do and I don’t really think about it to be honest.


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