Elephant Ivory Tracking

Elephant Ivory: Main Research Software


Large seizures of elephant ivory contain a wealth of information about where the majority of poaching is occurring and who is trafficking them. However, unless thoroughly analyzed, these seizures do little to stop poaching at the source. The elephants have already been killed, the poachers have already been paid, and the social structure of the herd has been disrupted.

The problem is compounded by the promotion of world trade and pressure on port authorities to keep commerce moving. Nearly one billion containers are shipped around the world annually, which makes containerized contraband exceedingly difficult for authorities to detect once it enters into transit.


Loaded container ship at port


Since 2004, the CCB has been conducting genetic analyses of large ivory seizures (≥ 0.5 metric tons) to determine where the elephants represented in these seizures were poached and to link individual traffickers to multiple ivory shipments.  This work enabled us to identify Africa’s largest poaching hotspots as well as the major transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) smuggling ivory out of Africa. Our primary goal is to locate the sources and shipping locations of poached ivory before it enters transit, where it becomes far more difficult and expensive to trace.


Map of Africa with regions around Tanzania and central west Africa circled

This map of Africa shows the two largest poaching hotspots in Africa between 2005 and 2015, identified by our genetic analyses of large ivory seizures. Seventy eight percent of the seized ivory we examined was from savanna elephants poached in an area centered on Tanzania, but ranging from northern Mozambique, through Tanzania, up into southern Kenya. Twenty two percent of the ivory was from forest elephants, poached in an area known as the Tridom (NE Gabon, NW Republic of Congo, and SE Cameroon).



How we do it

Our lab pioneered methods to extract DNA from ivory and elephant dung.  We collected elephant dung samples across Africa to build a comprehensive DNA reference map with the capacity to genetically distinguish elephant populations from one another.  When countries make a large ivory seizure, we select a representative portion of the tusks and remove a small piece of ivory from the base of the tusk. DNA extracted from those samples are then compared to our DNA reference map to determine where the ivory was poached.


Two maps of Africa, one with multiple green x mainly in central west Africa to show locations of forest elephants and the other with multiple orange x mostly in central eastern Africa to mark savannah elephants.


We extracted DNA from forest and savanna elephant samples collected across Africa. These two maps show where these samples were collected. Each X includes anywhere from 2-95 dung samples, each from a unique individual and whenever possible a unique family group.




Poachers are operating over vast wilderness area, usually on foot. They seldom have more tusks than they can carry. Middleman periodically swoop in to acquire their tusks, which eventually make their way up to the main export cartel, typically operating in a neighboring country, shipping multiple tons of ivory out of Africa. Separated tusks from the same individual or close relatives reaching these cartels at different times are commonly shipped in separate consignments. We were able to link multiple shipments to the same cartel by matching the genotypes of the tusk pairs found in these separate consignments.


Multiple maps of Africa zoomed in to show countries of export and lines connecting tusks that matched across the seizures made.

Example of DNA assignment and sample matching from 6 large ivory seizures. The place where the ivory was seized, as well as the date and weight (in metric tons (t)) of the seizure are written in the lower left corner of each map. The large maroon and orange solid circles show the main transit locations where the ivory left Africa or was seized prior to export. The genetically assigned geographic origin of each tusk within the seizure is illustrated by blue circles. Matched tusks between seizures are indicated by small solid red circles. Double headed arrows connect matched seizures; arrow thickness denotes the number of matching samples between the two seizures; and arrow color corresponds to the last common port of transit between matched seizures.



Working with law enforcement to combat the illegal ivory trade

These linkages enabled us to identify the three largest cartels moving ivory out of Africa between December 2011 and May 2014 and connect the major cartels to one another. “Combating transnational organized crime by linking multiple large ivory seizures to the same dealer

Our work has aided several significant prosecutions of ivory traffickers over the years:

The Atlantic: The Three Major Cartels Behind the Downfall of Africa’s Elephants

National Geographic: Forensic Technology Helps Case Against West African Ivory Dealer Accused as a Trafficker

CNN: Elephant DNA helps authorities make $3.5 million international ivory trafficking bust

We have collaborated with many law enforcement agencies, as well as government and non-government organizations worldwide throughout this process. Our closest partner is the US Homeland Security Investigations Division of the Department of Homeland Security. However, some of the other agencies we periodically work with include: the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (INTERPOL, UNODC, WCO, CITES Secretariat and World Bank) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.


Advancing forensic applications for tracking ivory

We are continually working to advance the breadth and effectiveness of the forensic tools we developed. Keeping up with the progress of DNA sequencing technology, in 2019, we began a project to develop a new set of genetic markers to analyze and combat ivory trafficking: Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or “SNPs.” SNPs allow us to improve our capacity to track changes in poaching hotspots over time as well as investigate criminal networks by connecting multiple shipments to the same transnational criminal organization. Our SNP assay can also be more readily and reproducibly shared with our international collaborators.