On March 9, officials at Vietnam’s Haiphong port got suspicious. Something didn’t seem right about the shipping container supposedly filled with recyclable plastic. They were correct. Amid the shredded waste were 6,200 kilograms of poached ivory, some 200 complete sets of tusks with an estimated street value of $29 million. It was Vietnam’s largest haul ever.
To Sam Wasser, it was a call to arms. Over the past decade, Wasser, a biologist at the University of Washington, has waged a war against ivory poaching. He doesn’t fight it with guns or trucks but with DNA. Working with Interpol, Wasser uses genetic analysis to match seized ivory to living elephant populations. His premise: Locating poachers is the first step to stopping them.
His work could not come at a more crucial time. Thanks to underfunded wildlife enforcement, liberalized global trade, and increased Asian demand, the illegal exportation of ivory has exploded in recent years.
“Since 2004 the price of ivory has increased ninefold, from $200 to $1,800 a kilo.” Wasser says. “We are losing between 8 and 12 percent of Africa’s elephant population each year. That’s a higher percentage than ever before.”
According to Wasser, today’s ivory trade is largely controlled by organized crime. That can often mean groups poaching specific areas intensively—and big gains if you shut them down. Wasser’s secret weapon is a genetic map of African elephant populations that he painstakingly assembled by analyzing dung samples from across the continent. Comparing specific DNA mutations from illegal ivory to his map, Wasser can isolate poaching activity with remarkable accuracy; the Selous Game Reserve of Tanzania and Zambia’s southern savanna are among his most recent hot zones.
“What we’re trying to do is to provide the tools needed to get the source countries to take control of their illegal trade, to tell them where to direct their limited law enforcement,” Wasser says. “We’re also trying to expose those countries that have been denying the poaching problem, saying ‘You guys need to do something.’”
So far the tangible results of Wasser’s work have been mixed. Stimulating law enforcement in marginally cooperative countries is a challenge at best. Still, he’s proceeding undeterred. Right now, Wasser says, “We feel like we’re onto the biggest ivory dealer in the world.” For the elephants’ sake, let’s hope he’s right.