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7 Aug 07
DNA analysis promises a new chapter in wildlife management and conservation
By Tan Cheng Li firstname.lastname@example.org
ACTING on a tip-off, wildlife officers swooped upon three houses in Gemas, Negri Sembilan, in March.
They found the freshly cut meat of a wild animal. In one house, the seizure ended an anticipated sumptuous feast – the occupants were just about to cook the meat. A blood-stained parang was seized.
The weapon and meat samples soon reached Chemistry Department laboratories in Petaling Jaya. Weeks later, the results of DNA analysis confirm wildlife officers’ suspicions: the meat and blood were that of the sambar deer.
The ungulate can be hunted with a permit from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan), but hunting season was confined to the month of November. The three men rounded up now faces a court violation for hunting out of season.
This is the first time that Negri Sembilan Perhilitan has employed DNA sleuthing to crack a case, reveals director Jamalun Nasir Ibrahim. “The department’s vet can physically tell that the meat is that of a sambar deer, but DNA confirmation will strengthen the case in court.”
DNA forensic techniques are providing wildlife officers with new methods for detecting wildlife crime, such as animal poaching, trafficking in endangered species, illegal sale of wild meat and use of endangered species in products.
Previously, prosecuting someone, say, caught with chopped up meat, can get difficult as the electrophoresis test employed could only tell what animal it was but not the species.
This is now possible with DNA fingerprinting. “In poaching cases, any splash of blood can be analysed to see which animal it came from,” says Dr Noor Zaleha Awang Saleh, head of the biotechnology section at the Chemistry Department.
She says DNA work has disproved various claims, such as deer meat being sold as wild boar meat and carved buffalo horn, as ivory.
One of the most successful uses of DNA analysis in wildlife management here is in the testing of 58 captive orang utans in Peninsular Malaysia in 2004. Suspicions that some were illegally obtained were confirmed when DNA sequencing showed six primates at A’ Formosa Resort and one at Johor Zoo, to be Sumatran orang utans – which cannot be traded under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Another important use of genetic profiling is in verifying parentage. This knowledge is vital in cases where only captive-bred, and not wild-caught animals, can be traded, such as the popular aquarium fish, arowana.
All kinds of animal body parts end up at the Chemistry Department laboratories – hides, hairs, bones, tusks, horns and feathers, apart from the usual blood and tissue samples.
Scientific officer Mohd Farouk Mohd Yusof and his colleagues are assisting Perhilitan in several ongoing cases. In one case, they are trying to verify that a piece of bird bill confiscated from a suspected poacher is that of a hornbill’s, a totally protected species. In another, a horn seized from a poacher’s house is being confirmed as that of a barking deer.
“Hair, fur or blood samples of an animal found at the crime scene can be used to tie a human suspect to the crime,” says Mohd Farouk. But because such wildlife forensic work is only just beginning, he has not had to testify in court, yet.
Of course, DNA sleuthing works only with a reliable database on the genetic make-up of all wildlife. Perhilitan sought the help of the Chemistry Department in constructing this baseline reference in 2004. To date, there are DNA markers for 34 species, including the tiger, elephant, tapir, false gharial, slow loris, primates, birds, wild cats, deer and snakes.
Once the database is complete, the possibilities are endless.
Genetic techniques, for instance, have proven their worth in wildlife conservation. Through DNA work, scientists can discern differences among species which may look physically alike.
In March, researchers at the US National Cancer Institute declared the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra, long thought to be the same species as the one found in mainland South-East Asia, to be an entirely new species of cat as DNA tests highlighted around 40 differences between the two species.
Similarly, in 2003, the elephant in Sabah was confirmed as a subspecies and named pygmy elephant. In 2004, DNA work showed the Malayan tiger is not Panthera tigris corbetti (Indochinese tiger) but a sub-species, now named Panthera tigris jacksonii.
In the case of the orang utan, the primate is now grouped into Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus), and the latter is further divided into three sub-species – P.p. wurmbii (found in Central Kalimantan), P.p. morio (Sabah and East Kalimantan) and P.p. pygmaeus (Sarawak and West Kalimantan).
Such specific segregation is crucial for monitoring illegal trade, as shown in the smuggled Sumatran orang utan case.
By fingering differences in animals’ genetic make-up, wildlife scientists can establish the geographic boundaries of animal populations and determine migration patterns.
Mohd Farouk and colleagues are now analysing elephant dung provided by Perhilitan, which hopes to distinguish between various herds, their numbers and geographical origins.
Meanwhile, DNA work on tapirs hints at an exciting find: there appears to be two groups in the peninsula, with genetic variations.
“We need more samples to determine the significance of the differences. We also need to find out where the samples were collected to confirm if there are geographical divergence,” says Mohd Farouk.
Perhilitan is also doing extensive DNA profiling of false gharials from the whole country, to ensure purity of the breed in light of several projects to captive-breed the reptile.
DNA detective work is all the more important in the wake of illegal trade in species such as pangolins, snakes, turtles and monitor lizards. Questions linger over whether these animals have been caught locally or are from Thailand and Indonesia and are merely passing through the peninsula en route to Vietnam and China.
This work goes beyond normal DNA analysis, however. Perhilitan will first have to do population genetics, that is, build up a database from samples all over Malaysia and neighbouring countries, so that comparisons can be made. This is because pangolins in Perak could genetically differ from those in Johor.
The applications of DNA analysis are endless and to complement the services provided by Chemistry Department, Perhilitan has set up the Wildlife Genetic Resource Bank which has facilities, equipment and staff for genetic studies, plus a storage bank for genetic materials.
It looks like an exciting new period in wildlife management has dawned.
What is DNA?
DEOXYRIBONUCLEIC ACID (DNA) is the principal constituent of genes, and is found in the cells of living organisms. DNA molecules are made up of a linear sequence of compounds called nucleotides, and form a long, continuous strand inside a structure called a chromosome. The unique sequence of the nucleotides in a chromosome determines the hereditary characteristics of an individual. Each gene occupies a particular location on the DNA strand, making it possible to compare the same gene in different samples.
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