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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

End of the road for illegal bushmeat trade in East Africa: Establishing transboundary surveillance by high resolution melting analysis of vertebrate molecular barcodes  

PI: Lillian Wambua (, International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology
U.S. Partner: Scott Miller, Smithsonian Institution
Project Dates:  October 2015 - September 2018

Project Overview
Illegal bushmeat trade is a global impediment to biodiversity conservation and public health. In Kenya and Tanzania, bushmeat trade has escalated to unsustainable levels, presenting a major threat to East African wildlife populations. Bushmeat trade and consumption expose humans and livestock to diseases such as Ebola and retroviruses, and bushmeat hunters risk contracting diseases from ticks and tsetse flies. Prosecution of bushmeat trade perpetrators in East Africa requires forensic evidence based on cytochrome oxidase I (COI) DNA-barcode sequencing, which is costly and time-consuming. There is a need for rapid, cost-effective forensic tools to screen for wildlife DNA in meat samples to support surveillance of bushmeat trade and improve law enforcement against perpetrators.

Wambua 2Wambua 1
Setting up mosquito traps by the Mara River (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Wambua)Sweeping for host-seeking ticks from grass in one of the sites in the Maasai Mara (photo by Dr. Wambua)

Effective prosecution against illegal bushmeat trade in Kenya and Tanzania is hampered by lack of cheap scientific methods and trained personnel to undertake high-throughput screening of suspect samples. The proposed research will develop cost-effective high resolution melting analysis (HRMA)-based bushmeat identification and build the capacity for its implementation by wildlife agencies in Kenya and Tanzania. The protocols will enhance transboundary surveillance systems by accelerating identification of wildlife barcodes in samples, which can then be sequenced to provide forensic proof for prosecution. Adoption of this method by the wildlife agencies will generate crucial data on the extent of illegal bushmeat trade in the region, thereby providing a basis for review and harmonization of national and cross-border policies, laws and penalties against illegal bushmeat trade.

Summary of Recent Activities

In this quarter ending December 2017, the team focused on transfer of the High Resolution Melt Analysis (HRMA) technology to their partner laboratory in Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Tanzania. They prepared training materials, including manuals and standard operating procedures for the HRMA equipment and necessary consumables. The HRMA equipment was handed over to the lab of their project partner Prof. Ben Mutayoba in SUA, and is now fully installed and in use for wildlife forensics. A one-week technical training workshop was conducted during which technical staff and students received hands-on training using locally sourced samples on how to perform HRM analysis of wildlife and domestic meats.

The team also worked on assessing the abundance and diversity of tick species in various ecological niches of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. They had previously collected questing ticks from vegetation in different ecological niches reserve. A subset of these ticks was identified microscopically. They then studied their distribution and abundance in relation to their ecology as defined by presence or absence of different wildlife species, grasses and woody plants. It was noted that high number of ticks was found in habitats with elephants, buffaloes, hippos and wildebeest. Surprisingly, there were low tick numbers in habitats with livestock, possibly indicating intensive control of ticks by farmers using acaricides. Tick numbers were also higher in habitats with particular grasses species, such as Themeda triandra, Sporobolus pyrimidalis and Hyparrhaenia dissoluta. As this was a subset of the tick samples, they will analyze the remaining samples and also investigate for pathogens borne by the ticks.

In the next 3-6 months, the team will continue to troubleshoot technical variations in the HRMA protocol. Field collection of bushmeat samples in transboundary regions of Tanzania and Kenya including Ngorongoro and Tarime will also take place.

They will conduct hands-on technical training of partners on HRMA technique for bushmeat analysis with participants from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. A manuscript will be developed and publication of the HRMA bushmeat forensics paper will be done.