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DNA evidence zeroes in on 3 African ivory cartels

Elephant tusks
Elephant tusks from an ivory seizure in 2015 are laid out in Singapore after they have been sorted into pairs. (Center for Conservation Biology / University of Washington)

DNA evidence and lots of detective work have revealed the networks behind illegal trade in African elephant ivory, centering on three smuggling cartels in Kenya, Uganda and Togo.

The case is laid out in a paper written by a team led by Samuel Wasser, head of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, and published today in the open-access journal Science Advances.

Wasser said the findings could figure in a complex case centering on Feisal Mohamed Ali, a reputed ivory kingpin based in Mombasa, Kenya. Feisal was convicted on trafficking charges in 2016 but was set free last month on appeal, due to problems with the evidence that was at hand for the trial.

“Our hope is that the data presented in this paper, and discovered by others, can help strengthen the case against this cartel, and tie Feisal and his co-conspirators to multiple large ivory seizures,” he said.

In addition to the Mombasa cartel, the DNA evidence points to Entebbe in Uganda and Lome in Togo as centers of the illegal African ivory trade.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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