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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 - September 2018

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 ending March 2018, the laboratory work on DNA barcoding is currently actively ongoing but only for Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) technologists who attended the DNA barcoding course. The Tanzanian team is still looking into the logistics of bringing back on board the 6 trainees from the wildlife Sector due to their work logistics, most of them are field based, with poor internet and molecular lab access to enable them provide them the required supplies for doing DNA extraction and PCR amplifications at their localities. The option available is to let each one come back to SUA when appropriate but this will have huge financial implication on the project for supporting their subsistence until they can qualify for proficiency test. The current target is to have at least 4 SUA technologists apply for proficiency test before the end of September, 2017 to enable them start generate and submit the barcodes to the GenBank.
In the next 3-6 months, the PI and his team will continue with field sample collection for DNA and Voucher Specimen, DNA extraction, DNA amplification and purification, Sequencing and uploading of DNA barcodes generated to GenBank. 
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