Cracking down on wildlife trafficking

Cracking down on wildlife trafficking

Wildlife trafficking is a threat to nature, security, and development

Published: December 2016. Dr Jon Wetton's team from the Department of Genetics of the University of Leicester, UK is part of a group of innovators recently awarded a prize by the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, an initiative by USAID, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC. The researchers are working on a sequencing-based approach to rapidly identify animals or samples picked up for example at border controls.

Dr Wetton was among the first to use DNA fingerprinting on wild animals (Wetton et al., Nature 1987), with years of experience in forensics, he should be the right man for this project. In DNA fingerprinting hyper-variable regions of the genome are amplified, their sizes visualized on a gel and the pattern compared between samples. The technique produces a data profile that is unique for most individuals and can therefore be used to match a suspect to material found at a crime scene. DNA barcoding is using the same idea, but focuses the comparison on one specific region of the genome (usually on the mitochondrial chromosomes of animals) against a set of sequence profiles stored in a database. Various barcoding projects are under way to build up this comparison dataset.

Dr Wetton demonstration the device. Photo Credit: University of Leicester
Dr Wetton demonstrating the device.  Photo: University of Leicester

Dr Wetton's team is planning to use Nanopore's handheld MinION sequencing machine and sample prep solution to put together a solution that could be used to combat wildlife trafficking in the field. The black market for animals and animal parts is estimated to be worth about 19 billion USD per year. It is threatening the survival of species, harming animals and putting people in danger working in conservation, law enforcement and tourism.

Being able to rapidly identify the species at hand would bring benefits like the following:

  • Test species directly at border controls in order to identify protected species and to enforce correct punishment
  • Re-locate confiscated animals back to the correct habitat where possible
  • Identify bushmeat offered at markets or checked by rangers

Sources & Links:

  • Proposal for MinION sequencing to combat wildlife crime
  • More info about wildlife trafficking and the Challenge
  • Science article about DNA test to combat trafficking in Brasil
  • Featured image: Pixabay