When authorities intercept illegal ivory shipments, biologist Samuel Wasser gets a call.
He flies out to whichever country has called—Kenya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia—to collect samples of the purloined elephant tusks. Then he analyzes the DNA those tusks contain. To Wasser, each one is a clue.
Wasser isn’t just a biologist. He’s a detective on the case, working to catch some of Africa’s slipperiest and most heinous criminals: elephant poachers.
African elephants became an endangered species in 1976. A century ago, around five million elephants lived in Africa. Today, that number has fallen to just about 415,000.
For thousands of years, people have coveted elephant tusks for their smooth, white ivory. In recent decades, demand for ivory has increased, leading to more poaching than ever. International ivory trading became illegal in 1989, but the poaching didn’t stop. Every year, poachers ship almost 1.1 million pounds of elephant tusks out of Africa. That’s as heavy as the Statue of Liberty. Twice.
God created a resource-filled world for mankind to steward and enjoy. But as often happens, human greed warps God’s balance and leads to destruction. Still, God’s brilliant design might also hold the answer for catching these poachers. According to Wasser and his fellow researchers, tracking elephant DNA could crack the case.
Elephants live in familial herds. Individuals in those herds share some DNA. That means that DNA collected from elephant tusks can reveal an elephant’s home location to within just a few hundred miles. That makes it much easier to figure out exactly where the poaching happened—no small task on a continent as large as Africa.
Most poachers work for larger criminal organizations. Authorities have a hard time connecting ivory shipments to those bigger groups. Catching small-time poachers is one thing, but catching the criminal leaders at the top? That’s a lot harder.
But with Wasser’s research, authorities can connect different ivory shipments to the same criminals. If they find identical DNA in two different shipments, they know the same poachers were behind both.
With the help of science, authorities have found that three groups are responsible for most elephant poaching. They’ve uncovered poaching hotspots in Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Gabon, and Republic of Congo. According to an agent from the Office of Homeland Security Investigations, DNA research forms the backbone of multiple current poaching investigations across many different countries. Authorities have already arrested two suspects.
Wasser hopes his research will help catch the big-time criminals behind it all.
Why? God calls us to steward creation, but human greed destroys. His brilliant creation also gives us the tools to discover truth and seek justice.