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Scientists and authorities recently gained ground in the fight against the illegal ivory trade by developing a novel method using DNA data from the seized tusks of African elephants to trace trafficking operations across Africa, Euronews reported.

In a new study, the team took genetic information from more than 4,000 elephant tusks from 49 ivory seizures. The samples were collected from 12 African nations from 2002 to 2019.

They then combined their findings with forensic evidence, such as phone records, shipping documents and financial records in order to map transnational criminal organizations across Africa.

“These transnational criminal organizations we’re trying to get – they are the key,” said co-author Samuel Wasser. “Because once the ivory leaves their hands and gets out of Africa, it becomes so difficult to trace.”

Wasser’s team discovered that about three major criminal groups are responsible for the bulk of elephant ivory smuggling operations out of the continent. They also identified pivotal locations where the ivory is poached and shipped and how traffickers have adapted in response to law enforcement crackdowns.

The authors hope the findings will aid law enforcement officials in targeting the major networks, instead of low-level poachers.

Annually, more than 550 tons of poached elephant tusks are shipped from Africa, mostly to Asia. The activity has threatened the continent’s elephant population, with numbers falling from around five million a century ago to around 415,000 today.

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