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

DNA barcoding to combat wildlife crime

PI: Henry Ndithia (, National Museums of Kenya 
U.S. Partner:  David Schindel, Smithsonian Institution
Project Dates: October 2015 - August 2019

Project Overview

Wildlife criminals, poachers, and traffickers of endangered species protected under CITES and national laws are developing new ways to avoid detection and prosecution. In the case of protected animals, traffickers are shipping them as butchered and processed meat, eggs or juvenile stages, dried powders, and other forms that have proven difficult to identify. In these forms, even taxonomic experts cannot provide species identifications based on morphology because diagnostic characteristics (commonly provided by bones and hides) are absent from confiscated material. As a result, border inspectors, police, and park rangers may not suspect that intercepted objects come from protected species. Even in cases where suspicions are aroused and the materials are confiscated, crime investigators aren’t able to identify them with confidence. The same may prove true even for the expert zoologists who receive the objects for identification. In those rare cases when an expert provides an identification using the few morphological features preserved, it is difficult to overcome the objections of defense attorneys who raise doubts in the minds of magistrates.

This project proposes to use “DNA barcode” sequence data to identify confiscated materials by their species of origin. DNA barcoding has become an accepted and commonly used method for species identification practiced by taxonomists, ecologists and other academic researchers. Since 2012, Kenya has been one of six partner countries in the Google-supported Barcode of Wildlife Project (BWP), which has provided training to staff at the National Museums of Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service. These institutions are assembling a reference library of DNA barcodes from endangered species that can be used to identify confiscated material. The Kenyan researchers continue to receive technical support and advanced training from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the U.S. Government-supported partner on this project.

The two main objectives of the project are to expand training and technical assistance to new participants in Tanzania, as well as strengthen Kenya’s systemic response to poaching in two ways. First, DNA-based research on endangered species through the National Museums of Kenya will create new tools for prosecuting wildlife criminals. Second, collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service will put these tools to work in Kenyan courtrooms. The result should be a rapid near-term rise in the rate of convictions for poaching and trafficking, followed by long-term growth in the population sizes of endangered species and measures of ecosystem health. These should translate into prosperity in agriculture, greater food security, job creation, and a strong and sustainable tourism industry.

Summary of Recent Activities

In this quarter, the PI and the team held a meeting in July to prepare a final date and organize logistics for the enforcement workshop planned for the 24th of July 2019. 

Lab Work is ongoing for additional samples received during the reporting period and from the previous collections. (Amplification, Purification and sequencing is still ongoing and once complete the sequences shall be submitted to Genbank. The data dump was finally transferred from the Amazon servers to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) servers. Since the final transfer of data from Amazon into the Museum Servers, they have continued adding more data since they are now accessing their database locally and validating the field metadata on the Biscicol website (

The lab data analyses for the PhD student (Esther Mwangi) is still ongoing using the newly purchased microsatellite markers. She is also making plans to collect more samples within Nairobi area. The student is simultaneously writing up her thesis.

In the next few months, the team plans on wrapping up the project in August 2019 by holding the enforcement workshop and dissemination workshop. 

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