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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 (, and Jandouwe Villinger ( International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology
U.S. Partner: Scott Miller, Smithsonian Institution
Project Dates:  October 2015 - April 2020

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 reporting period, applied HRM analysis to investigate the sources of meat in local butcheries in Nairobi. They found evidence of giraffe being sold for human consumption in Naivasha. Nevertheless, the current data indicates that consumer deception (where one species substituted for another e.g. sheep instead of goat),appears to be more of a concern than bushmeat. High Resolution Melt Analysis (HRMA) for detection of crime A lot of interest generated significant interest amongst the participants.

The project team continued to generate confirmatory data on the pathogens in the insect vectors (Ticks, Mosquitoes and Tsetse flies) collected in Maasai Mara to assess the potential risk as bridge vectors of diseases. They have now identified several viral pathogens in mosquitoes, bacterial pathogens in ticks and parasites in tsetse flies which have also been confirmed by DNA sequencing. They also spent time putting together manuscripts of the findings on HRMA and the findings on pathogens. The results of the findings were shared with the local USAID mission in a joint meeting of all PEER projects in Kenya held at the National Museums Nairobi.

In the next 3-6 months, the team will continue to sensitize stakeholders drawn from the justice systems of Kenyan and Tanzanian government to work towards positive policy changes in detection and law enforcement of illegal bushmeat trade in the region. Towards this end, they are cooperating with other PEER-funded projects in Kenya on wildlife trafficking, with the support of the Local USAID mission in East Africa.