It is now recognised that the illegal wildlife trade is not only an environmental issue, but it is one of the biggest transnational criminal activities on the planet. The money involved in the illegal wildlife trade of endangered species alone is estimated to be around USD $7-23 billion dollars a year, with its transnational nature putting it in the same league as the illegal drugs and weapons trade and human trafficking. However, in contrast to efforts to combat those human focused criminal activities it is often left to organisations and agencies outside what would be considered the traditional criminal investigative system to provide intelligence and forensic evidence to bring about enforcement actions and prosecution outcomes.

In human forensics, two types of DNA analysis are generally carried out, DNA fingerprinting if a good quality samples are available, or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analyses if samples are degraded, (e.g. cold cases or disaster victim identification). In order to standardise the forensic data generated in labs around the world so anyone in the field can interpret the data, there are standard genomes that are used as references. For example, when a mtDNA analysis is carried out, the specific mtDNA genome that all other human mitochondrial DNA profiles are compared to is called the revised Cambridge Reference Sequence (rCRS).

Of course humans are just one species, Homo sapiens, and there are forensic labs and scientists all over the world developing, validating and carrying out analyses every day ensuring reliable comparable forensic data collection. In contrast however, a multitude of species; from plants and fungi to all sorts of animals can be encountered in forensic case work involving the illegal wildlife trade. Unfortunately, we often do not have suitable genetic information for many illegally traded species. This can be a major obstacle for wildlife forensic labs around the world, in particular those that have limited resources or equipment, meaning they may not be able to generate forensic evidence to a suitable standard when its needed most. Not being able to provide this information can hamper proper criminal investigations.

Here in Australia, none of the police forensic laboratories work on wildlife cases. These are handled by our lab, the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG), based at the Australian Museum and the first ISO accredited wildlife forensics laboratory in the country. We carry out casework at the request of a range of state and federal agencies tasked with enforcing native and endangered species legislation, bio-security legislation and fisheries legislation. Accreditation means that we carry out our case work at a comparable level of quality control and quality assurance as human forensic laboratories, that are perhaps more familiar to readers. Because of the importance of high quality forensic analysis and the high value nature of this transnational crime we advocate that this should be the standard across the wildlife forensic community.

ACWG DNA Labs 2015
A series of images showing the staff and the work in the DNA Labs of the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) at the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI). Image: Ian Bird
© Australian Museum

Our recently published work promotes this standard by outlining the development a ‘forensic quality DNA reference database’ for use in wildlife forensic identifications. As part of this international collaboration, the ACWG is teaming up with Non-Government Organisations TRACE the Wildlife Forensic Network and TRAFFIC The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, as well as forensic laboratories in Scotland (Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture), Malaysia (Department of Wildlife and National Parks), South Africa (The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa) and colleagues from the University of Oklahoma and Flinders University, to develop a database of genetic reference sequences to be used in our casework, comparable to the rCRS used in human victim crimes.

We will develop a database named “ForCyt” (one for the genetics nerds!) of mitochondrial DNA genomes from tissue samples taken from expertly identified reference specimens (from zoos or museum collections), that will be stored with the highest quality controls and assurance in place. We will begin by generating data from high profile illegally traded species; species that are highly endangered, frequently traded and often the focus of forensic investigations (elephants, tigers, rhinos, pangolins etc). This database will be available to all wildlife forensic laboratories around the world, and will be the foundation to promote standardisation, professionalism and quality assurance across the wildlife forensics community.

Greta Frankham, AMRI Postdoctoral Fellow
Rebecca Johnson, Director, Australian Museum Research Institute

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