A Zimbabwe National Parks official looks over an ivory stockpile at the Zimbabwe National Parks Headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe. (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazh)

A Zimbabwe National Parks official looks over an ivory stockpile at the Zimbabwe National Parks Headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe. (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazh)

A stack of elephant tusks sits in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. Scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. (AP/Ben Curtis)

A stack of elephant tusks sits in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. Scientists found that most large ivory seizures between 2002 and 2019 contained tusks from repeated poaching of the same elephant populations. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Two young elephants play in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Two young elephants play in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Thai customs officials display seized ivory during a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP/Sakchai Lalit)

Thai customs officials display seized ivory during a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP/Sakchai Lalit)

A herd of adult and baby elephants walks in Amboseli National Park, southern Kenya, with Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro rising in the background. (AP/Ben Curtis)

A herd of adult and baby elephants walks in Amboseli National Park, southern Kenya, with Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro rising in the background. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Elephant Detectives

Posted: May 1, 2022

Ring! Ring!

Biologist Samuel Wasser picks up the phone. Which country is calling this time? Kenya? Singapore? Malaysia? Either way, he gets the same news: Police have found stolen ivory. Again.

Mr. Wasser is no ordinary biologist. He’s a detective working to catch slippery criminals—elephant poachers. He flies out to whichever country has called. He collects samples of poached elephant tusks. Each tusk is a clue. He analyzes the DNA the tusks contain.

African elephants are endangered. A century ago, around five million elephants lived in Africa. Today, that number has fallen to around 415,000. People covet elephant tusks for their smooth, white ivory. International ivory trading is now illegal. Still, poachers ship almost 1.1 million pounds of elephant tusks out of Africa every year. That amount is as heavy as the Statue of Liberty. Twice.

God created a resource-filled world for mankind to enjoy. But human greed leads to destruction. Does God’s brilliant design also hold the answer for catching these thieves?

Maybe.

DNA collected from elephant tusks can reveal where an elephant came from. That’s because elephants live in family herds. They share DNA markers within those groups. That makes it much easier to figure out exactly where the poaching happened. That’s no small task on a continent as large as Africa. Does DNA from one ivory batch match DNA from another? If so, authorities can connect those thefts to the same criminals.

So far, science has pinned most elephant poaching on just three groups of thieves. Authorities have already arrested two suspects.

Why? God calls us to steward creation, but human greed sometimes destroys it instead. His brilliant creation also gives us the tools to expose greed with truth.