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DNA tracking holds the key to defeating ivory traders

At-risk: Elephants still being hunted

THE war on elephant poachers has been boosted by DNA tests on illegal ivory which have unmasked the three largest smuggling hotspots in Africa.

The breakthrough identified what appears to be a trio of cartels operating out of Kenya, Uganda and Togo — and could save thousands of elephants from being hunted for their tusks.

Scientists showed tusk pairs that had been separated and shipped in different consignments to destinations around the world, having been moved out of the same places — Mombasa, Entebbe and Lomé — when trafficking peaked between 2011 and 2014.

This indicates the number of networks smuggling ivory out of Africa are ‘few in number’, said Prof Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington Centre for Conservation Biology.

The method is an ‘investigative tool’ that will help officials ‘track the cartels and collect evidence for criminal cases’, he wrote in journal Science Advances.

His team’s research could see smugglers face multiple charges. Until now, they have most often been tried for single, high-profile seizures.

The trade in ivory was outlawed in 1989 — yet the African elephant population fell by 111,000 between 2005 and 2015. Numbers dwindled to an estimated 415,000 in 2016, reported the International Union for Conservation of Nature.