Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge: The Uni. of Washington is using DNA tech to protect pangolins

Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge: The Uni. of Washington is using DNA tech to protect pangolins


Pangolins are widely considered the most trafficked mammal in the world. Over the last decade more than one million pangolins have been taken from the wild. My name is Sam Wasser, I am the Director of the Center for Conservation
Biology at the University of Washington. My innovation is developing methods that are
able to track the sources of major poaching of pangolins. The pangolin is the most poached mammal in the world. It is kind of like an armadillo and it is
poached for markets in Asia for meat as a delicacy as well as for medicinal products
using the scales. This has become a significant transnational
organized crime. We are developing genetic techniques that
are able to pinpoint the origin of large pangolin seizures to figure out where exactly they
were poached. We develop very accurate DNA markers very
similar to what the FBI uses to identify a criminal in a crime scene. Then we develop ways to get DNA from tissue
samples of pangolins and we train detection dogs to essentially go across the range states
to create pangolin dung samples, primarily, that we get the DNA from and are able to essentially
map the genetics of pangolins across their entire range. Then when there is a large seizure of pangolins
we are able to get the DNA from those pangolin samples, match it to our DNA reference map
and very accurately pinpoint where the pangolin is being poached. What is important about this is it allows
us to direct law enforcement to the most major poaching hotspots for pangolins as well as
to figure out where there are individual exporters that are doing a large number of the exporting. This is an application for pangolins that
is modified from an application that we have been doing for large ivory seizures for many years. We now analyze virtually all large ivory seizures
made anywhere in Africa or Asia to determine where they are poached. Virtually all of the methodology needed to
make this work and a lot of the connections countries and law enforcement people we have
in place. What we are trying to do with the pangolins,
though, is a little bit different. We have been trying to make more efficient
genetic markers that really deal with the specific sequences that don’t require as much
sophisticated technology to identify so that we can transfer this technology to all these
different labs around the world. Transnational organized crime has become different. The ability to acquire and move large amounts
of contraband has really scaled up to levels we’ve never seen before. The problem with that is it creates this huge
urgency where you have a species that is spread over really wide areas and the sophisticated
weaponry and ability to move this contraband, then you can wipe out a species incredibly fast. Having the ability to target these large seizures
and to say, “90 percent of it is happening here and here and that’s it,” is what we found
in the ivory trade. In fact, we found that over the last decade
almost 100 percent of all large ivory seizures came from just two places. By showing, to concentrate on these two countries,
was a huge boon for law enforcement. Each elephant has two tusks and one of the
things that we learned is that very often both tusks are not in the same seizure, which
made us wonder, “Well, what happened to the other tusk.” Once we had all these seizures’ genotype we
could see: Are the two tusks from the same animal ending up in different seizures, and
if so did it have a common transit point. We found lots of cases where that happens
which means that the same exporter shipped both seizures. Now we are able to link major dealers not
only to where they are operating but also to multiple seizures to say, “This guy is
truly a transnational organized criminal,” and to be able to show how he is moving his
operations, where he is loading his containers. The amount of information you can gather from
this is truly extraordinary. My name is Sam Wasser. I am the Director of the Center for Conservation
Biology at the University of Washington, and we innovate to save wildlife. Together, we can build a future without wildlife crime For more information or to support the Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington please contact us: [email protected] | wildlifecrimetech.org | @wildlife_tech Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

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