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Guest Blogger: DNA Fingerprinting and Wildlife Forensics

By Dplylemd

This is a cross post from my friend Dr. GV Rao’s Blog. Interesting information on the use of DNA in wildlife management in India.

DNA Fingerprinting and Wildlife Forensics

An important goal of the conservation management programs in Wildlife of the critically endangered species is the determination of parentage and levels of genetic diversity within the remaining population. Such determination is possible, with high rate of success, is by use of DNA based methods. Every living life form on earth contains the most basic building blocks of life – the Deoxyribonucleic Acid or DNA, which provides them their biological identity either as an individual, a species or a population as well as their geographical origin and evolutionary history. Using the understanding of DNA science, coupled with the presence of efficient molecular techniques to examine information in DNA markers (segments of DNA in the genome of organisms that reveal variations), biological information can be tapped, revealing otherwise unreachable information at all levels of life. Furthermore, with the support of specific statistical tools and bioinformatics to analyse DNA data, inferences about the biology of organisms can be done, thus providing essential details for evolutionary, population and conservation biology.

Wildlife forensics is a relatively new method for law enforcement around the world and has not yet caught up the attention of Indian wildlife experts. It uses the same principles as human forensics, with a few modifications. The difference is that wildlife forensics needs to be able to identify and distinguish between a variety of species, whereas human forensics is concerned with just one species – Homo sapiens. The advent and application DNA fingerprinting (in the mid 1980’s) has been essential for both wildlife and human forensics.

The aim of wildlife forensics is to provide information for the conclusive identification of the animal carcass, for conviction of offenders, and hopefully deter these acts. It is also active in various molecular genetic research aiding wildlife management and conservation.

DNA fingerprinting allows for the identification of an individual or species. DNA sample sizes may be too small, so DNA amplification techniques may be applied. This involves the amplification of the small amount of DNA wherein in a short period of time the amount of DNA is greatly amplified. DNA fingerprinting allows the questioned wildlife sample can be confirmed with a match to the standard sample maintained in the laboratory.

DNA fingerprinting is useful in Wildlife management in several ways including;

* individual identification for matching tissue samples from an illegal kill site to samples associated with suspect.

* species identification of unknown tissue samples involved in illegal commercialization and poaching

* includes identification of mixed game products – packed meats

* sex identification to enforce the violations of the wildlife acts

* parentage analysis for captive breeding programs

* applying a non-invasive DNA sexing method (through the use of feathers) on birds. For the success of breeding efforts {as birds of both sexes do not show any distinct differences in their external morphology (sexual dimorphism) at their juvenile stage as well as at their adult stage}.

The law requires that guilt of an accused under Wildlife protection acts be established beyond a reasonable doubt. To do this, the prosecution needs either eyewitness testimony or physical evidence. The Wildlife laboratories can provide this physical evidence and serious violations of wildlife laws can be investigated and prosecuted. The U.S. has a national lab, and Canada has various labs across the country and India has none except for a research lab – LaCones at Hyderabad. One of the longest running ones is The Wildlife Forensics DNA Laboratory at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. It was the first lab to produce DNA evidence to be accepted into a North American court involving a wildlife violation. In India the most important case to have caught the attention of Wildlife experts was the Salman Khan Black Buck case wherein I had conclusively proved that the carcass exhumed after postmortem was indeed a black buck and not a deer as some assumed it to be. Now the US handles over 50 cases a year, providing convictions with fines, whereas in India it is a dismal 2 cases per year with cases still being under trial.

There is a need to conduct more molecular genetics research for wildlife management and conservation. The question many of you may ask is what is the use of Genetic Consequences? Or what connection does wildlife forensics have with conservation and genetics? Well at the out set it gives you direction in possible increase in population size with a decrease in animals hunted, increase population size, decrease possibility of inbreeding, increase heterozygosity and in turn, increase fitness. Current research on the population structure of a highly endangered local freshwater crocodile (Tomistoma schlegelii) using DNA based methods to infer bio-geographical distribution of the species range within Malaysia and South East Asia is yielding important results.

A Forensic wildlife laboratory will also receive analysis costs from other organizations and research grants. It then provides information that can aid in the prosecution of an offender, who then pays a fine to the government. Further, in the future, similar techniques that are used in the human genome project could be transferred to wildlife forensics, and automation will be the key. Studies of populations using past genetic information and comparing it to present and future genetic information with the assistance of DNA databases could provide knowledge any genetic impact of wildlife forensics. It is important to note that other aspects could also affect the outcome, and these need to be taken into consideration when drawing inferences. Therefore the need of the hour is that all the Officers of the Indian Forest Service and Conservators of Forests should unite to demand for Forensic Wildlife Laboratories to meet the requirement for better Wildlife conservation.

Dr. GV Rao

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