To help combat the illegal wildlife trade in China, I've travelled to Australia to learn new molecular techniques.

Imitation Ivory
This synthetic ivory bangle is crafted to the same diagnostic standards as genuine ivory, including “Schreger angles”. Rather than saving elephant’s tusks, synthetic ivory places enforcement agencies in a much more complicated situation as it can be very difficult to distinguish synthetic ivory from genuine ivory. Image: Zhao-Min Zhou
© Zhao-Min Zhou

Across the world our wildlife faces severe threats stemming from illegal and unsustainable international trade as well as the loss of habitat to urban development. The global movement of wildlife for the illegal trade is estimated to be worth billions of US dollars annually. Unfortunately, China has been referred to in recent scientific literature as a “black hole” because of the lucrative market it can provide in international illegal trafficking of wildlife.

I have been responsible for wildlife forensics in a Chinese border province, Yunnan, since 2010. This region is considered an important overland border pathway of wildlife smuggling. Seizures by local authorities, especially the public security bureaus for forests in Yunnan, have involved living animals, animal carcasses, and products of more than 80 animal species.

With a background in traditional taxonomy, I could use my knowledge of morphology to identify seized animals using morphological characters (typically external physical characteristics). However, morphological identification alone is typically not able to identify how many animals may be represented (for example if the animal has been cut into pieces), or parts or products of an animal, and these types of products are commonly encountered in the market. Further, imitation artifacts make the situation more complicated.

This is where molecular techniques are particularly useful, providing accurate species identifications even for pieces of animals and degraded products. Besides identifying species, molecular techniques have other great utilities for wildlife forensics, such as assigning geographic origins, distinguishing individuals and ascertaining sex and parentage. So, DNA techniques seem very promising and important to me.

I am visiting the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics to study the use of DNA testing for highly processed and degraded wildlife products and to improve the detection of imitation artifacts, such as synthetic ivory and rhino horn. I hope to learn these techniques and take this expertise back to China where it will become part of our “tool-kit” in the fight against wildlife crime.

Dr Zhao-Min Zhou
Yunnan Public Security Bureau for Forests, China

I’d like to thank the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics at the Australian Museum Research Institute, for supporting my 12-month study trip.

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