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Scientists created a revolutionary way to determine if animals are being illegally trafficked

Posted October 24, 2018

One of the big problems with conservation of endangered species is illegal trade. In fact, this 23 billion dollar business is the fourth-largest criminal market worldwide. The problem is that some trade of animals is legal, but it is very difficult to determine which animals are being sold legally. Now scientists from Australia developed a new revolutionary way to determine if a confiscated animal is being illegally trafficked.

Echidnas are common victims of illegal animal trade, but they can be identified by analysing their quills. Image credit: fir0002 via Wikimedia (GFDL 1.2)

Scientists from UNSW Sydney, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, University of Technology Sydney and Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation worked together to create this innovative technique, which could help cracking down on illegal animal trade. This method checks chemical markers present in keratin such as quills, feathers and hair. Sounds a bit too weird to be true? Well, the core of this method is that legally traded animals are bred in captivity – wild animals cannot be sold or trafficked. This method identifies chemical markers in keratin that establishes with more than 96% accuracy whether the animal has been eating a natural, wild diet or a captive diet.

Essentially, this allows checking the story of people selling the animals. Finding that the animal came from wildlife essentially proves that it is being sold illegally and should be confiscated. 96 % accuracy is a big part of the effectiveness of this method, but scientists say that the big challenge was putting this science in the hands of law enforcement. Dr Kate Brandis, lead author of the study, said: “Analysis of quill, feather and scale samples from a range of animals needs to be done if we’re really going to make the most of this discovery. The next step is development of portable handheld devices based upon this science that gives an immediate snapshot of whether an animal has been taken from the wild or raised in captivity”.

Scientists suspected that it is possible to differentiate between animals bred in captivity from the wild ones just by analysing markers left by their diet. It is virtually impossible to recreate natural diet in captivity, which is beneficial for the purposes of this method. Now scientists are continuing their work to perfect the method to prepare it to be used in real life situations.

Illegal animal trade is a heart-breaking problem. These animals are caught illegally, typically using traps and sedatives. Then they are transported thousands of kilometres away to be used in exotic restaurants or for some strange medicine.


Source: UNSW

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