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A Library of Life: DNA Barcodes Track Bushmeat Trade

  • Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Washington, DC--Scientists have published DNA barcodes of frequently traded species that can be used to identify and crack down on the illegal trade of bushmeat. A grim and growing market, the illegal bushmeat trade is valued at some $15 million a year.

Wildlife and customs officials can use the barcodes to determine whether luggage, handbags and clothing, and meat products were harvested from species embargoed from international trade.

Working from samples collected from blood and tissue collected in Central Africa, museums, and leather products confiscated by wildlife authorities, scientists from the University of Colorado successfully sequenced more than 200 species, including duikers, spiral-horned antelope, red river hogs, old world monkeys, alligators and crocodiles, and other more commonly traded animals in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

Originally announced in Conservation Genetics, the results will be added to the Barcode of Life Data Systems, an online, open-access database that aids collection, management, analysis, and use of DNA barcodes.

Experts are also using DNA sequencing techniques to track ivory illegally harvested from Africa. After sequencing the DNA from confiscated tusks, scientists consult genetic records kept in Africa to identify the elephant populations the ivory came from. Because the ivory can be traced to a precise population and location, wildlife officials can more heavily guard areas that prove to be sourcing grounds for harvested ivory.

Both techniques do for wildlife conservationists what DNA sequencing has done for forensic labs -- improve law enforcement. "If we can stop the flow of wildlife illegally traded to serve the bushmeat and exotic pet market, we can cut off demand," says Dr. Philip Muruthi, Director of Conservation Science at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). "AWF supports a task force of bushmeat fellows in East Africa and has worked for decades in 11 African countries to improve the enforcement of wildlife laws both internationally and at the local level."

To learn about the new study, click here.

To learn about AWF's species conservation work, click here.

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