RZSS in the Fight Against Wildlife Crime!

September 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

  The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS – the charity that owns Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park) is involved in many aspects of conservation from breeding programmes in the zoo, contributing to in-situ conservation projects, educating people about animals and conservation to supporting research that can improve conservation efforts.

   As part of its contribution to research RZSS part-funds a Darwin Initiative project which centres on wildlife forensics, using genetics to fight one of the biggest threats to wildlife in South East Asia: the illegal wildlife trade!

   The majority of animals whose populations are under threat from the wildlife trade are protected by law through the CITES agreement which controls the trade of endangered species but the practical enforcement of such legislation in some areas is limited by lack of experience, coordination, expertise and capacity.  For example how could you prove that a seized piece of meat, fur, horn etc came from a protected animal?  Genetic testing such as that researched by this wildlife forensics project can provide definite evidence of the origin of such items.  

   As part of the three-year forensics project headed by TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network based at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and in partnership with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, genetics experts in Edinburgh are now sharing their knowledge and skills with enforcement agencies in ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). The first regional wildlife forensic workshop took place in Kuala Lumpur in August 2010, and the hope is that shared techniques will allow greater accuracy in the collecting and processing of forensic data which could help bring about more wildlife crime prosecutions.

Scientists from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are sharing forensic techniques with investigators in Asia to help enforcement agencies pursue more wildlife crime prosecutions. Photo Credit: TRACE/RZSS

  Recently back from his trip to Malaysia, joint leader of the workshop Dr Rob Ogden said: “The wildlife of south east Asia is one of richest in the world and as a result has one of the biggest battles with wildlife crime. In Europe, where resources and techniques have advanced significantly in DNA analysis and genetics, forensic analysis is now an established enforcement tool in fighting wildlife crime.”

“In areas such as south east Asia, where arguably these techniques could have the most benefit, organisations are overwhelmed by the sheer incident numbers and a lack of experience or knowledge in using these techniques to help their investigations. We hope we can share our knowledge to help investigators collect data accurately to enable species identification as well as confirm their geographical origins. These two indicators are crucial in building evidence about what crime has occurred.”

  As fellow project scientist Dr Ross McEwing continued, as science continues to develop enhanced investigative techniques it is hoped that the risk of being caught will act as more of a deterrent. “If an animal is still recognisable then you can usually identify it without the need for DNA analysis. But even then, knowing where it has come from can have a huge impact on potential criminal leads and, if it is still alive, on its survival rate once it is returned.”

“When an animal or even a plant can’t be identified this is when forensic techniques can seriously come into play.  For instance, pangolins are endangered due to the popularity of wildlife trade for food and traditional medicine. Once seized – unless returned to their original habitat – they tend to die so being able to tell where the animal is from is important in order to support its return. These forensic techniques can also help to identify whether indistinguishable meat is from these protected animals.” 

Pangolins are scaly anteaters. They are in great demand because their meat is considered a delicacy and some believe pangolin scales have medicinal properties. Photo Credit: Chris Shepherd/TRAFFIC

  As well as providing specialist training courses that will help develop the capacity for wildlife forensic investigations, the Scottish team is also giving guidance on laboratory systems to support forensic processing and web resources to help share best practice, tried and tested techniques and benchmark species’ DNA guides.  For more information on the project visit: www.asean-wfn.org 

Chimps on Camera!

All our chimp enthusiasts will be happy to hear this next piece of news: there is a new webcam for us all to follow!  This one is set up in Budongo Trail and it means that you can check on what our chimpanzees are up to whenever you want!  With the recent group merge and everyone still very much trying to work out their place in the hierarchy it is sure to be an interesting one to follow!



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