Scientists may have found a way to stop elephant poachers through genetic testing.

What’s happening: Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks, the World Wide Fund for Nature said. But scientists may have found a way to expose criminal networks involved by examining the DNA of seized ivory tusks.

The study: A team of researchers from the University of Washington in the U.S. performed DNA testing on 4,320 seized African savanna elephant tusks, obtained from 49 seizures in over 12 counties over two decades, the study published in Nature Human Behavior stated.

  • They used “familial DNA matching,” which is a technique that links the sample to biological relatives. It has been often used to find serial killers, according to NBC News.
  • International trafficking operations could be uncovered after sifting through phone records, license plates, financial records and shipping documents.

Why it’s important: “When you have the genetic analysis and other data, you can finally begin to understand the illicit supply chain — that’s absolutely key to countering these networks,” Louise Shelley, who researches illegal trade at George Mason University, said, according to ABC News.

The researcher said: Conservation biologist and a co-author of the study, Samuel Wasser, hopes the research helps law enforcement take down this network.

  • “These methods are showing us that a handful of networks are behind a majority of smuggled ivory, and that the connections between these networks are deeper than even our previous research showed. … Literally, we had dozens of shipments that were simply connected by multiple familial matches,” Wasser said, according to The Swaddle.
  • “By linking individual seizures, we’re laying out whole smuggling networks that are trying to get these tusks off the continent. … Identifying close relatives indicates that poachers are likely going back to the same populations repeatedly — year after year — and tusks are then acquired and smuggled out … on container ships by the same criminal network,” he added.

Flashback: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory by placing the species on Appendix I in 1989, according to The New York Times archives.

The big picture: A trade ban hasn’t stopped the trafficking of ivory tusks. An estimated 1.1 million pounds of poached elephant tusks are shipped from Africa each year, according to ABC News.

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