DOHA, Mar 25 – DNA analysis has become a potent weapon against the multi-billion-dollar traffic in wild animals and by-products, from ivory to tiger-bone wine to turtles cooked alive in top Asian restaurants, experts said.
The black market in endangered fauna and flora is driven by a global demand for exotic pets, precious jewellery, forbidden foods and potions with alleged curative and sex-boosting powers, the experts told a UN conference.
In the last decade, organised criminal networks drawn by a low-risk, high-profit business — especially in Asia, where much of the trade is centered — have made things worse.
But new gene-based investigative methods are helping resource-starved wildlife police even the playing field, at least a bit.
They have led to arrests, and can put the lie to claims by some vendors that the illicit wildlife they openly peddle is farm-raised or from non-endangered species.
"There is a lot of laundering of animals taken from the wild through captive breeding facilities," said John Sellar, the top enforcement official at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Meeting in Doha during the past 13 days, CITES is the only convention with the power to ban or restrict cross-border commerce in animals, plants and their derivatives.
Until recently, it was often impossible to determine whether an ivory carving purchased in, say, Bangkok was made from legally from the tusk of a domesticated Asian elephant or illegally from its African cousin.
But today a simple DNA test costing a couple of hundred dollars can spot the contraband.
In November, it uncovered a major cache of African ivory in Thailand and led to the arrest of two men.
The evidence for that and other busts was processed at a forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon run by the US government and frequently used for CITES-related cases.
"It is the only one in the world dedicated to serving wildlife crime," explained Benito Perez, chief law enforcement officer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The same methods were applied in a recent case involving sea turtles, he said.
"We bought products that we suspected were made of protected sea turtle skin, and all we had to do is determine what species it came from," he said.
But matching requires a reference library of genetic information, which only exists today for a handful of species.
"We have a large database of DNA profiles for elephants, tigers and sturgeon," the source of caviar, said Sellar.
But for hundreds of other species the database-building groundwork has yet to be done.
In the case of African elephants, which spurred acrimonious debate in Doha and at every CITES meeting in the three decades, DNA fingerprinting has already moved to the next level.
A nugget of ivory can tell University of Washington professor Steve Wasser not only which species of elephant it came from but where in Africa the animal once roamed.
"To track elephants genetically, you have to develop a genetic map of across the entire continent," Wasser said in an interview.
The least invasive way to do so was by collect dung samples, a project that took nearly a decade.
But two problems remained: genetic variation linked to region was limited, and the standard method for extracting DNA heat damaged its molecular structure.
Wasser looked at so-called "junk DNA," the 99 percent of genetic material that is not genes. Because these regions are more subject to mutation, he reasoned correctly, minor differences within herds were likely to show up.
Using a liquid nitrogen as a medium, he also found a way to crush the ivory without heating it.
The method revealed recent multi-tonne seizures of ivory in Asia came in significant measure from Tanzania and Zambia.
The findings helped sink proposals in Doha by both countries to carry out one-time sales of ivory stocks, bids based in part on the contention their populations were well managed.
They also showed poaching was concentrated geographically, suggesting the involvement of highly-organised crime networks able to execute large-scale raids.
Still, it may be years before DNA testing becomes routine, experts say.
"DNA analysis has major potential, but has not yet had a significant impact — it is difficult to use as a tool a remains pretty costly," said Holly Dublin, head of the Elephants Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.