West African Ivory Trafficker, 'Le Patron,' Prosecuted With Help From DNA Analysis

Three men stand next to a haul of ivory tusks seized by security forces at the port of Lomé in Togo. PHOTOGRAPH BY NOEL KOKOU TADEGNON, REUTERS

Three men stand next to a haul of ivory tusks seized by security forces at the port of Lomé in Togo. PHOTOGRAPH BY NOEL KOKOU TADEGNON, REUTERS

Émile N’Bouke, a notorious illegal ivory dealer in downtown Lome, Togo, was recently arrested and convicted for trafficking tusks and ivory carvings from elephants poached across West and Central Africa. In his defense, N’Bouke claimed the ivory originated from Chad before the 1989 ban on the international sale of ivory went into force. Using results from cutting-edge molecular and isotope technology, the prosecution revealed that the ivory originated from elephant populations in Gabon, Cameroon and Côte D’Ivoire and that some of the tusks were harvested as recently as 2010. The University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, founded and directed by Dr. Samuel K. Wasser, produced the genetic evidence to take down this trafficker. Since 1973, Dr. Wasser has collected elephant dung samples from over 2,000 individual elephant groups across the continent to develop an allelic map for the species that can be used to pinpoint, within 260 kilometers, which population produced any particular seized tusk. To date, Dr. Wasser’s efforts have also helped identify ivory poaching hotspots in Tanzania and illegal ivory trade routes from Africa to Asia.

Through a grant awarded in 2013, The Paul G Allen Family Foundation supports Dr. Wasser’s application of genetic methods to inform and improve African elephant conservation efforts.