A new study suggests that as few as three major criminal groups are responsible for smuggling the vast majority of elephant ivory tusks out of Africa.
Researchers used analysis of DNA from seized elephant tusks and evidence such as phone records, license plates, financial records and shipping documents to map trafficking operations across the continent and better understand who was behind the crimes.
The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior. Each year, an estimated 1.1 million pounds of poached elephant tusks are shipped from Africa, mostly to Asia.
Researchers said in the study that while large shipments of elephant ivory move out of Africa on a continual basis, few are ever prosecuted or convicted for these crimes. Researchers wrote in their findings that they were able to "identify trafficking networks on the basis of genetic matching of tusks from the same individual or close relatives in separate shipments."
They looked at 4,320 savannah and forest elephant tusks and took samples from 49 large ivory seizures.
The findings revealed some interesting clues into how the underground smuggling operations happen.
"Network analyses reveal a repeating pattern wherein tusks from the same individual or close relatives are found in separate seizures that were containerized in, and transited through, common African ports," the study found.
The hope is that this work will lead to more prosecutions and reduce poaching.
"Results suggest that individual traffickers are exporting dozens of shipments, with considerable connectivity between traffickers operating in different ports. These tools provide a framework to combine evidence from multiple investigations, strengthen prosecutions and support indictment and prosecution of transnational ivory traffickers for the totality of their crimes," researchers wrote.