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

Use of DNA technology in combating illegal trade and promoting conservation and sustainable use of plants in Kenya and Tanzania  

PI: Beatrice Khayota (, National Museums of Kenya
U.S. Partner: David Schindel, Smithsonian Institution
Project Dates: October 2015 - April 2020

Project Overview
This project will create and utilize two different knowledge sources on which policies, programs and activities can be based. The first will be a new knowledge base of the legal and illegal markets for plants in Kenya and Tanzania. Official records, new market surveys, and genetic analyses of plants being sold in domestic markets and trafficked across national borders will be compiled to provide a more accurate picture of the uses and over-uses of plant species. This knowledge base will be used to help enforcement agencies improve their efforts to stop poaching and illegal trafficking of endangered species; identify areas where wild plants are being illegally harvested for sale; identify potential markets for valuable cultivated plants for legal sale; and create new community-based sustainable strategies to restore and protect ecosystem services that are threatened by illegal harvesting of wild plants. The second knowledge source produced by the project will be a public reference library of DNA barcodes—short standardized DNA sequences that enable enforcement officials to identify plants that are difficult to assign to their correct species using traditional morphological features such as flowers. This component of the project builds on the success of the Barcode of Wildlife Project, led by the Smithsonian and funded by Google, in which Kenya has been a partner country. Kenya will use its demonstrated ability to generate high-quality DNA barcode records to expand the reference library to include more plant species that are endangered and protected by CITES and national law, as well as non-protected species with potential economic importance to Kenya and Tanzania.

4-342 Market survey
The team carrying out survey of market samples. Photo courtesy of Dr. Khayota
Kenya and Tanzania have great natural wealth in the form of exotic animals and plants in and outside protected areas that attract ecotourists, but these resources can generate significant additional wealth if used in new ways. Bushmeat hunting and the illegal gathering of plants from the wild are being conducted as extractive industries, not sustainable enterprises. Yet thousands of plant species are valued as herbal medicines and ingredients in skin care products, ornamentals for landscapes, and as cut flowers, sacramental elements in traditional and religious ceremonies, and for other uses.

Illegal harvesting and over-exploitation is reducing the economic benefits and development opportunities that Kenya and Tanzania can obtain from their rich biodiversity. This project seeks to change the balance with new knowledge-based policies and activities. The proposed knowledgebase of legal and illegal plant trade will be used to help identify species, populations, and ecosystems at risk from over-harvesting and suggest plant species that could be domesticated and marketed to improve livelihoods.

Project results could also support new policies for community-based ecosystem development projects leading to increased ecotourism and farming, promote biodiversity conservation, and raise awareness among the public and government officials regarding plant poaching and its cost to national economies.

Summary of Recent Activities

The main aim of this project which has come to an end was to seek to change the balance with new knowledge-based policies and activities related to legal and illegal plant trade. This was going to be used to help identify species, populations, and ecosystems at risk from over-harvesting and suggest plant species that could be domesticated and marketed to improve livelihoods.

The PI reports that because of this project DNA barcode identification services of plant exhibits impounded/confiscated) and reports are being provided for use in courts for prosecution of wildlife crime offenders. So far, over 300 samples belonging to 5 court cases, have been successfully identified, reports presented as expert evidence and used in prosecution of wildlife crime court cases. There has been an enhanced regional corporation between Kenyan and Tanzania in combating wildlife crime and expanded tools to include DNA evidence. Through the project, key medicinal species in trade have been identified, and this will inform the domestication process to be implemented in the subsequent project year. Database of wild plants in trade in Kenya to inform MEAs implementation and selection of trees for on farm tree planting and part of National reporting.

The PI reported that they conducted a ten-day Eastern and Southern Africa DNA barcoding training for ten (10) middle level officers drawn from government institutions with regulatory roles in wildlife matters in Kenya, Uganda and Madagascar. The trainees acquired skills in DNA barcoding, Taxonomy and systematics, Non-Detriment Findings, wildlife policy and legislation and wildlife forensics. These will be used to inform policy on wildlife management in the region. Data generated during the training will be analyzed and contribute to the DNA Reference Library created (e-repository), with the ultimate intention of uploading to Genbank (global open access data). Wildlife legislation amendment in TZ to include non-human DNA process ongoing. Scientific seminar presented to researchers as part of dissemination of project results. The results were also shared with the local USAID Mission.

This PEER project has enabled other initiatives/projects at NMK to apply DNA barcoding to build on the Reference library created, for additional taxa, including use of equipment purchased under USAID PEER, e.g. National Research Funded Project: ‘Germplasm Conservation of Indigenous Edible Mushrooms to Diversify Nutritious and safe Food Sources in Kenya’. Use and effectiveness of DNA technology in combating wildlife crime has been demonstrated and capacity in its application enhanced in the region.

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