Using DNA to Put Poachers Away

by Bill Clark

Modern DNA technology is helping to protect African wild animals from the most ancient of criminal abuses—poaching for bushmeat.

Long before elephant ivory carvings became fashionable, and before crocodile skin handbags and colorful tropical pet birds were stylish, people exploited wild animals as a source of food. Many ancient societies tried to limit the exploitation by imposing restrictions and taboos, and even religious prohibitions, but some people persisted nevertheless, and many wild species were forced into extinction as a consequence. For Americans, the classic example is the passenger pigeon, which numbered more than 3 billion around 1800, but was simply hunted and eaten to extinction by 1914.

As human society became more sophisticated, so did the bushmeat dealers. Some people still think of bushmeat poaching as a somewhat innocent activity pursued by a few rural people keen to put a bit of meat on the family table. But that’s hardly the case anymore. Bushmeat poaching has become a financially profitable international criminal industry that strip-mines many wildlife habitats of every animal that can be caught. Bushmeat syndicates traffic in enormous volumes of meat, enjoy spectacular profits, and are protected by some of the best lawyers money can buy. Credible studies indicate that the bushmeat industry consumes about 2 million tons—that’s 4,000,000,000 pounds of meat from wild animals—each year in Africa alone. By comparison, US consumers eat about 13 million tons of beef annually.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has been reasonably successful in suppressing the bushmeat trade in Kenya for many years. Vigorous patrols out in the bush, coupled with ongoing monitoring of the markets and quick response to information from the public, have resulted in many bushmeat poachers and dealers going to prison. KWS is absolutely serious about enforcing the national prohibition on bushmeat, as one fellow learned just a few months ago. Acting on a tip, KWS tried to intercept him at a road block—but the bushmeat dealer (with more than 200 pounds of zebra meat in his car) stepped on the pedal and tried to run through the road block. KWS gave chase, shot out his tires, collared the dealer and hauled him off to court. “Two years in prison at hard labour” the judge said.

The dealer went to prison because KWS had admissible evidence. The zebra meat still had the animal’s striped skin attached. Even the defense attorney had to admit it was the meat of a protected wild animal.

Most bushmeat dealers, however, are smarter than that. These days, the big commercial meat dealers tell poaching gangs that they must cut away all “morphologically identifiable” parts—that is, cut away the skin, hooves, bones, organs and anything else that a biologist can identify as belonging to an animal from a particular species. The dealers tell the poaching gangs that they must deliver red meat only, without even a stray hair attached.

With all the identifiable parts removed, it is impossible for even an expert to make a visual species identification of simple red meat. Knowing this, the defense attorneys for the bushmeat dealers can confidently challenge evidence in court. “Your honour, we insist that the prosecution prove to us that the meat they have seized from my client is giraffe, a protected wild animal, and not goat, which is not protected by law.”

There’s only one sure way to irrefutably distinguish between the red meat of giraffe and the red meat of a goat: DNA analysis.

“DNA technology has become a powerful tool that can quickly and reliably be applied to meat specimens to determine the species being analyzed,” says Prof. Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology. Prof. Wasser is a prominent DNA expert who works closely with INTERPOL to identify the source of seized contraband ivory. “Used properly,” he adds, “this cost-effective tool greatly empowers African nations in the fight against this serious transnational organized crime, which not only jeopardizes their wildlife and ecosystems, but also the health of humans who come in contact with these products.”

Before KWS had a laboratory to conduct that analysis, bushmeat dealers slipped off the hook because the principal evidence required for a conviction would not hold up in the courtroom. Now, with a new DNA lab, it can.

The effort to create a DNA forensics laboratory has spanned four years and has brought together the support of many people and organizations—including the Animal Welfare Institute—who want to get bushmeat trafficking stopped. The Kenyan lab, located inside the KWS headquarters compound in Nairobi, is the result of generous efforts by NGOs in Europe and the United States, industry, universities, and government agencies, all pitching in to assemble the bricks and mortar, acquire numerous items of technical laboratory equipment, and provide training for the KWS technicians assigned to work in the lab.

“Kenya Wildlife Service is truly grateful for the wonderful support the conservation community has provided in helping us to create this new lab,” said William Kiprono, director of KWS. “Assembling it all is a very challenging exercise, and we have benefitted from a good number of experts who helped us achieve a remarkable accomplishment.” The director explained that creating a DNA laboratory is complicated enough: There are precise architectural requirements, and several rooms in the lab had to be situated in the proper sequence. It was necessary to identify and acquire precisely the right equipment (everything from centrifuges, to a thermocycler used to amplify DNA, to shelves of chemicals and vials). The technicians had to be trained to use everything with exceptional care. Beyond that, the facility also needs to be recognized as a forensics laboratory—meaning it must be certified by the courts as an acceptable place for storing evidence used in a criminal prosecution, and the procedures for DNA analysis must comply with the legal requirements imposed by the country’s rules of evidence. One slip-up and a case can get thrown out of court.

Fortunately, the Kenyans have some experienced partners who have gone through these challenges before, and are willing to help with the new lab. Foremost among these is Prof. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Gila has been a key ally for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) for many years, using DNA evidence to prosecute poachers successfully. The real litmus test of Gila’s competencies came when INPA rangers served a search warrant on a man believed to be a bushmeat poacher. The rangers emptied a good quantity of meat out of the man’s freezer and hauled it off to Gila’s lab. Gila made her analyses and confidently announced the meat came from a mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), an animal that is legally protected in Israel.

As INPA and Gila discovered, however, the man with the illegal meat was a lawyer. Conviction of a crime, including poaching, meant he’d be disbarred and forbidden from practicing law. So he fought like a demon and pulled every string within grasp. He was convicted anyway, so he appealed and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Israel. In Israel, expert witnesses can be called to appear before the Supreme Court, and Gila had to stand before a bench of skeptical justices and explain why she was certain that the meat seized by the INPA rangers was gazelle, and no other species. She had to explain how DNA analysis works, and why she was absolutely confident there was no mistake. She had to respond to the cross-examination and hostile challenges of defense attorneys. She had to convince the justices “beyond reasonable doubt.” And she did!

The Kenyans are benefitting from this experience and Gila is coaching the lab technicians not only in how to use all of this sophisticated laboratory technology properly, but also in how to present and defend their work in a courtroom. It is not enough just to collect all the required evidence. The technicians must also be able to stand firmly against the highly vigorous grillings and challenges and ridicules they will encounter from defense attorneys, and convince the magistrates that their evidence is reliable and incriminating, and their procedures are correct and comply precisely with the rules of evidence.

It will be no easy task. The bushmeat trade is a very profitable business, and so can hire the most high-powered defense attorneys. Bushmeat is profitable because it is acquired cheap and sold at a premium. A simple wire snare can snag any animal in the African bush, including an elephant. Depending on how the snare is set, the animal is either tethered to a particular site until killed by the trapper, or the animal is strangled. Either way, it’s a lot cheaper to acquire a few pounds of meat this way than to invest all the land, time, cost and effort required to raise livestock.

Although use of snares is the most common inexpensive method for killing wild animals, it is not the only way. The hunters also use steel-jaw traps, guns, arrows, poisons, deadfalls and many other methods. All of them are cruel, and all of them are cheap.

Often, the meat is mixed with high-priced beef—a type of consumer fraud that carries with it the risk of transmitting serious sickness. Consumers may think they’re buying government-inspected beef, but in actuality, they’re buying uninspected bushmeat. And uninspected bushmeat has been the source of deadly diseases such as Ebola, monkey pox, SAPS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and others. HIV/AIDS has its origins in wildlife, and many scientists feel the disease jumped to humans from contact with bushmeat infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV).

Not all of this meat stays in Africa. A recent study coordinated through French Customs at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport targeted 29 incoming flights from Africa over a 17-day period and found 134 passengers were carrying bushmeat in their luggage. Together, they were carrying nearly five tons of bushmeat—and whatever pathogens that bushmeat may have carried.

Another recent study, this one in the United States, looked more closely at health-related issues, using samples of some bushmeat seized at JFK Airport in New York that was sent to a laboratory. The lab found simian foamy virus, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to keep out of the United States. Simian foamy virus is a serious threat principally because—like HIV/AIDS—it is a retrovirus, capable of invading a living cell and initiating a process known as “reverse transcription.” Essentially, this process copies the cell’s DNA in reverse and starts to replicate. The organ’s immune system does not recognize these viral copies as being invasive, and so does nothing to suppress them. Unimpeded, the virus grows and infects. Bushmeat trafficking, thus, is a direct threat to human health worldwide.

But like the drug pushers, gun runners, and ivory dealers, the bushmeat traffickers have little concern for the consequences of their crimes. It’s the profits they’re after. That 4-billion-pound bushmeat industry likely produced the equivalent of about $10–12 billion annually. And every penny of that is illegal, so the money must be laundered. And the dealers and butchers need to falsify their business records. (And nobody pays tax on this stuff anyway.)

 “Illegal trafficking in bushmeat certainly is one of the most serious of wildlife crimes,” said David Higgins, manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme. “It imposes criminal damage on ecosystems. It imposes serious threat to human health. It violates many animal welfare and veterinary laws. It is intimately tied to multiple financial violations. And it commonly is linked to common crimes such as fraud and conspiracy.”

“Bushmeat trafficking is a world-wide problem,” he acknowledged. “But it appears to be impacting most heavily in Africa. Because of that, we’re grateful that KWS has agreed to make its new DNA forensics lab available to wildlife agencies in other African countries that seek to use DNA evidence in the prosecution of their own bushmeat cases.”

Bill Clark is an honorary pilot-warden for the Kenya Wildlife Service with more than 30 years’ experience in wildlife law enforcement, including work with INTERPOL, Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and KWS.  He is the primary author of the 1989 proposal which included all elephants on CITES Appendix I (full legal protection from commercial trade), and a recipient of the 2010 Clark R. Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement Award.