In a study published this week in Conservation Genetics Resources, Scientists from the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), Sydney University and assisted by the Zoos and Aquariums Association have provided a model of how endangered species that are popular in the pet trade – in this case an endangered Australian snake species, the Broad Headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides (BHS) - can be managed in order to curb this illegal trade.

Although it is legal to hold BHS in NSW with the correct permits, it had long been suspected that a key threat to this species was the illegal poaching of individuals from the wild to replace licensed individuals that had died in captivity, or to pass off as captive-bred offspring. To improve management of the species, OEH piloted a program where all licensed animals were to be microchipped and have a DNA sample lodged with the Australian Museum to form a bio-bank for this species. The AMRI team then developed a range of DNA tests that were able to provide individual DNA fingerprints for all individuals in the bio-bank. Our recent study uses these DNA fingerprinting tools to investigate three groups of BHS: 1) those privately held under license in NSW, 2) all BHS currently held in Australian zoos and 3) wild BHS. In theory, if private keepers have been following the rules of their permits, only breeding and selling licensed animals among themselves, these three groups should form three distinct genetic clusters. While the captive zoo population forms its own genetic cluster, our results show significant overlap between the private and wild populations, suggesting that wild-caught animals have been periodically introduced illegally into the privately-held captive population.

Broad headed snake
Broad headed snake rearing on a rock Image: Stephen Mahony
© Stephen Mahony

The outcomes of this research highlight the power of bio-banking as a simple, yet effective means to ensure the legitimacy of animals held under license, particularly threatened species. If reference samples from legitimately captive-bred individuals are available, we can easily trace the provenance of animals sold in the pet trade by comparing genetic profiles between these and their reported parents. We encourage the pilot BHS program to be continued and advocate for an expansion of this bio-banking program to include other native as well as exotic species held under license in Australia. Most modern natural history museums, such as the Australian Museum, and many zoos have the capacity to curate bio-banks such as these. Provision of a DNA sample as a condition of an animal keeper license would provide scientists and wildlife managers with a powerful resource to deter and detect illegal activity, as well as provide law abiding keepers and institutions such as zoos with a method of proving the provenance and legitimacy of the animals in their collections.

Greta Frankham, Research Assistant, Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics AMRI

Siobhan Dennison, Research Assistant, Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics AMRI/ School of Science and Technology, University of New England

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