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Decoding Poaching Patterns: Using DNA to Save Pangolins

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Mason Walker
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Decoding Poaching Patterns: Using DNA to Save Pangolins

Decoding Poaching Patterns: Using DNA to Save Pangolins

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Pangolins, the most trafficked mammals globally, have been the focus of groundbreaking research that uses DNA from their scales to identify poaching hot spots. This novel method has been instrumental in exposing smuggling routes and tracing the remains of African pangolins back to specific forest populations. The paper trail of pangolin shipments often ends in Nigeria; however, DNA tests reveal that less than 5% of the pangolin scales originate from the country.

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Shifting Patterns in Pangolin Poaching

Using a genetic tracing method that utilizes 96 Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), researchers have exposed a shift in poaching activities. The poaching of pangolins, particularly the endangered white-bellied species, has moved eastward from Sierra Leone to Cameroon. This research reduces the time lag between intercepting wildlife products and reactive enforcement, providing valuable aid to conservation and law enforcement efforts.

Mapping the Genetic Origin

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Scientists from UCLA and their colleagues have created a genetic source-to-destination map of the pangolin, using samples from living white-bellied pangolins and scales from animals confiscated at illicit markets. This genetic screening, accurate to within 125 miles, reveals that Nigeria is a major regional hub for the distribution of pangolin scales. The scales are mostly transported to markets in countries including China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Singapore. The global trade in illegal wildlife, a $20 billion business, is conducted by sophisticated international cartels.

Genetic Testing: A Powerful Conservation Tool

A genetic test developed to identify the geographic origins of confiscated pangolin scales has helped in tracking the shifting poaching activities from West to Central Africa. As populations of Asian pangolins declined, smugglers have turned to importing African pangolins to meet demand, with the white-bellied pangolin becoming the most trafficked mammal in the world. The new genetic test method provides crucial insights into the impacts on the animals and guides resource allocation for conservation efforts. The test, similar to DNA evidence in crime scenes, can provide information on a sample’s origins within a week of testing.

Facing the Future

The research findings have been shared with authorities and conservation organizations in Cameroon, with the hope of identifying more pangolin populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The findings can help focus conservation where the poaching pressure is most severe. More studies are needed to understand how the market in China has been affected by greater legal protection and speculation about links between the coronavirus and pangolins. The pioneering use of DNA in mapping poaching hotspots offers hope to international efforts aimed at ending the killing and trading of the white-bellied pangolin.

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