Dr Greta Frankham is momentarily hidden in a cloud of vapour as she opens a freezer door. Hands gloved to protect against the cold – at minus 80 degrees Celsius it’s many times colder than your fridge at home – she lifts the lid of a frost-encrusted box to reveal vials of different samples.
“This one comes from a liver and this one is a bit of scale,” she says. Frankham is the acting manager of the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG). Part of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), it’s playing an important role helping federal government agencies combat illegal wildlife trafficking into and out of Australia. Here, seven large freezers hold 90,000 samples of feather, muscle, skin and tissue, the DNA from thousands of species across the globe, particularly Australia, South-East Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
Moving to a lab next door, Frankham explains how she and her colleagues determine whether a creature (or a piece of it or product) seized by customs officials is indeed illegal wildlife. “We use genetic tools, like DNA sequencing, which target small informative parts of the genomes to do quick species identifications to help law enforcers build cases that stand up in court.” The scientists use other techniques to determine an animal’s source population or region, and through a pedigree analysis whether it was wild-caught or captive-bred.
Ivory, rhino horns, live parrots, pangolin scales and shark fins: wildlife trafficking is one of the world’s biggest illicit transnational trades along with drugs, arms and human trafficking. Estimated by the UN Environmental Program and INTERPOL to be worth more than US$20 billion a year, this deadly trade is pushing rhinos, African elephants, tigers and many other animals to the brink of extinction.
Established by the now Director of AMRI and internationally recognised wildlife forensic scientist, Dr Rebecca Johnson, the ACWG is the only internationally-accredited wildlife forensic DNA lab in Australia. Johnson and Frankham are also the only certified forensic wildlife scientists in the country, sharing their expertise internationally and training the next generation of forensic scientists.
AMRI supervises a number of postgraduate students, including Kyle Ewart, a PhD student, from the University of Sydney, who is directly supervised by Johnson and her colleagues. Last year, when he was an honours student based at the AMRI, Ewart developed a simple, quick, inexpensive and effective rhino-horn testing technique. It involves drilling into the core of a sample of horn, extracting DNA and then amplifying a small section of DNA, a process called “DNA barcoding”.
“Some ‘rhino’ horns are fakes,” Ewart says. “They are actually water buffalo horns – or even just hair and plastic pressed together. We help determine whether a crime has taken place at all. Sometimes, it’s just a biosecurity issue or mislabelling, and at other times it’s potentially trafficking endangered species.”
Last November, the AM scientists – working with Dr Ross McEwing fromTRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland – were invited to take their technique to Vietnam.
They trained forensic scientists in Ewart’s method at the wildlife genetics laboratory at the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi, testing more than 70 samples of impounded rhino horn. The Vietnamese lab is now able to provide preliminary species identification of seized rhino horn to border control authorities within 24 hours.
There is a growing urgency to convict more poachers internationally. Last year was the worst on record for rhino poaching, with a staggering 1,175 killed in South Africa alone, compared to just 13 in 2007. Only 30,000 rhinos now remain in the wild, five per cent of the number 40 years ago. Illegally purchased for between US$65,000 to US$100,000 per kilogram, people use rhino horn in traditional medicine in China and South Asia, believing (without any scientific proof) that it cures mild to severe conditions ranging from hangovers to cancer. Additionally, with Asia’s growing affluence, many consumers want to own (and/or consume) rhino horn to affirm their social status.
Elephants face a comparable fate to rhinos. Despite mass burnings of stockpiles of tonnes of ivory, the global trade remains strong and poachers are slaughtering elephants at a terrifying pace. The rate of elephants killed has exceeded the birth rate every year since 2010. Three-quarters of Central Africa’s elephants have disappeared since 2002, while poachers wiped out nearly half of Mozambique’s elephants over the past seven years.
“Most ivory is headed to Asia, but we do get asked every now and then to perform species identification for ivory seized in Australia,” Frankham says. “It’s important for Australian authorities to know if the ivory in Australia is coming from the African or the Asian species.”
Another growing issue is the illicit trade in live animals, such as parrots and reptiles (often traded as eggs) and tropical fish, and even species you wouldn’t expect, such as echidnas, are candidates for wildlife smuggling sold to exotic animal collectors in the US and Asia.
The ACWG also deals with confiscated fish catches, and has previously provided species identification for seized shark fins which may have been destined for use in shark-fin soup.
Globally, 25 shark species are listed as critically endangered or endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Evidence produced by the ACWG has led to convictions in Australia for illegal shark fishing.