Scientists and investigators are increasingly turning to cutting edge DNA barcoding technology in their fight against illicit wildlife trafficking.
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth at least $19 billion annually, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, and has been linked to corruption, money laundering, and terrorist financing.
In recent years, as poachers and traffickers have gone to greater lengths to catch and conceal wildlife, authorities have increasingly turned to sophisticated methods of investigation.
DNA barcoding, which uses short DNA sequences to identify species, is fast becoming one of the most effective courtroom tools to prosecute wildlife crime.
Although first developed by Canadian scientist Paul Hebert nearly 15 years ago, only recently has DNA barcoding been used against poachers and traffickers.
With a grant from Google, the Barcode for Wildlife Project has trained hundreds of law enforcement officials and scientists to use the technology in South Africa, Kenya, and Mexico.
“There are many ways to try to reduce international trafficking in endangered species — setting aside land, beefing up policing,” said David Schindel, principal investigator for the project and executive secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life. “Ours was different in that it was aimed at investigating and prosecuting. Many people have said it is like CSI for wildlife.”
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DNA barcoding, Schindel explained, starts with the sequencing of a short string of DNA taken from a standardized part of the genome.
In animals, technicians isolate a gene from the mitochondria region, called cytochrome c oxidase 1 gene, which is then replicated, sequenced, and placed on a database.
Forensic scientists and investigators handling crime scene evidence are then able to identify biological specimens by cross-referencing it against stored DNA barcodes.
In the past, biological specimens were identified by shape, size, and color. But if a specimen was butchered or ground into a powder, for example, recognizing it could be a challenge for even the most experienced taxonomist.
DNA helps solve that by providing unambiguous separation between species based on the genetic DNA sequence, Schindel said.
The Barcode for Wildlife Project asked each participating country to identify 200 priority species that were being poached and trafficked.
While some large mammals were included, about half the species were plants that were being smuggled as seedlings or cuttings. Small fish, reptiles, and amphibians were also targeted.
“What we did was not about elephant tusks,” Schindel said.
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With support from the Smithsonian Institution, local technicians and taxonomists in each country collected samples and built a library of DNA barcodes.
“They set about getting samples of well-identified specimens from their museums, botanical gardens, zoos, national parks,” Schindel said.
At the same time, law enforcement agencies were trained to take and handle DNA samples from crime scenes under strict conditions.
Schindel says already more than 3,000 reference barcodes have been produced and uploaded to GenBank, a publicly accessible repository of DNA sequences. That number could reach 10,000 by next year.
In Kenya, which is home to tens of thousands of different plant and animal species, the project is already having results in court.
Florence Magoma, a senior prosecutor for the Kenyan Wildlife Service, said 20 convictions have been secured using DNA barcoding this year.
“The trend has been encouraging since the reports coming from the labs are watertight and are definite on what the species is,” she said.
Previously, Kenyan wildlife authorities relied on a government chemist to analyse suspected bush meat samples — an inexact process which Magoma said could only identify if the animal was domestic or wild.
It was also frequently disputed by defence lawyers and doubted by judges.
With DNA barcoding, she said, the forensic reports are specific to the “last detail” for each animal.
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The project’s relationship with Google ended mid-2016 and funding to the Smithsonian Institution has dried up.
Authorities in Kenya, Mexico, and South Africa are still building their libraries with grant money. And, by making the DNA barcodes available on an open international database, other countries can use and contribute to them, Schindel said.
“If the reference records adhere to the quality standard that we have set,” he said, “then in principal they can be contributed to by scientists anywhere.”
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