SA's portable DNA labs to help stamp out wildlife crime

20 November 2017 - 16:31 By Graeme Hosken
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Image: Sunday Times

Like a fingerprint‚ DNA does not lie.

Now science‚ through the creation of multiple online libraries containing the DNA of endangered and invasive species‚ has added a vital tool to the arsenal of wildlife crime fighters.

Launched in the Kruger National Park on Monday at the 7th International Barcode for Life Conference (iBOL) was the Lab-In-A-Box.

The system - a portable laboratory - allows rangers‚ police‚ ports of entry authorities and environmental affairs agents to quickly detect whether plant‚ fish or amphibian and animal species that they come across from potential smugglers is endangered or invasive.

It has been described as a potent tool in the fight against wildlife poachers and smugglers.

The Lab-In-A-Box‚ a portable DNA barcoding kit‚ makes the identification of species possible within a few hours. In the past‚ said wildlife crime experts‚ lab results could take up to a week. The kit is able to improve detection and analysis and may also help identify poaching hotspots and trafficking routes.

Professor Paul Hebert‚ iBOL project founder and University of Guelph in Canada's Centre for Biodiversity Genomics director‚ said that many species were in decline‚ from large vertebrates to small insects and tiny plants.

"By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability makes it possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere."

He said numerous species were becoming extinct before it was known what role they play in ecosystems.

"DNA barcoding provides the means to map and register life on earth at a greater speed than ever before‚ creating an inventory of multicellular life."

Karabo Malakalaka‚ department of environmental affairs head of bio-security at South Africa's ports of entry‚ said the department was setting up bio-security interventions across the country.

"Traffickers often disguise the species they are smuggling‚ making it difficult to identify them. Through these decoding kits officials will be able to determine exactly what the species are that they come across."

She said the kit was aimed at helping to address a variety of wildlife crimes‚ from the smuggling of endangered species to stopping invasive species from being brought into the country. The kits‚ said Malakalaka‚ would be used by game rangers‚ police and wildlife enforcement officers.

"The critical part of this kit is that it drastically reduces the time needed to identify plant or animal species that are found on people."

She said that since 2015‚ DNA of thousands of species had been loaded onto the iBOL system‚ with South Africa having uploaded roughly 530 DNA samples of invasive species‚ through the University of Johannesburg's African Centre for DNA Barcoding and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

"The partnership which we have with the University of Johannesburg is to broaden this database with the lists constantly being assessed."

Sujeevan Ratnasingham‚ creator of the Lab-In-A-Box‚ said in developing countries‚ where inspectors at ports of entry may have limited taxonomic knowledge and expertise‚ the need for rapid DNA identification was even more pressing.

"Many threatened animals and plants are trafficked out of developing countries‚ which do not have adequate resources to combat these crimes. The Lab-In-A-Box reduces the cost of adopting DNA analysis infrastructure and by simplifying usage of DNA analysis tools."

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