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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 September 2017, 87 bushmeat specimen obtained from various traders in Tanzania were analyzed by HRM and followed by verification with DNA sequencing. They confirmed that the meats were obtained from ungulates, mainly warthog, buffalo, impala, Grant’s gazelle, bushbuck hartebeest, wildebeest and zebra. There was also one rodent meat sample from the red cane rat. With this information, they further worked on generating reference profiles for discrimination of wild and domestic ungulates from the pig (suinae), antelope (Antelopinae), equine (Equinae), and bovid subfamilies. It was clear that wild and domestic ungulates could be distinguished easily with HRM.

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. We 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 this quarter seven (7) undergraduate students from Tanzania and United States of America (USA), were attached to the project for short-term training. Six of these students were attached to our partner lab in Tanzania, while one was attached in icipe, Kenya. The students were trained on bushmeat sampling techniques, basic molecular biology skills such as DNA extraction, PCR, HRMA and bioinformatics analyses.

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.