Molecular Tech Helps Fight Wildlife Crime

By Adeline Seah and Stefan Prost

The Jakarta Post | Saturday, December 29, 2018 

Tigers, elephants, pangolins, sharks. Both iconic species and less charismatic ones like snakes and lizards are over-harvested and illegally traded for luxury consumption, traditional medicine, the pet trade, and fashion. The exponential growth of wildlife trade (both legal and illegal), when combined with climate change impacts, has intensified the pressures on the rich natural heritage of Indonesia. As a result, the nation, whose incredible biodiversity is distributed across 17,000 islands, has experienced growing challenges in managing terrestrial and marine wildlife. 

Globally, illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is the fourth biggest illegal industry, only surpassed by drug trade, arms, and human trafficking. In one month alone, Operation Thunderstorm— an Interpol-led 92 country-wide crackdown on IWT in May 2018—resulted in almost 2,000 seizures worth millions of dollars, including 43 tons of “bush meat,” 4,000 birds, and 27,000 reptiles.  

The Indonesia Program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) provides technical enforcement support e.g. its Wildlife Crimes Unit, and natural resource management, e.g. assisting the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to develop a National Traceability plan for the legal trade in Sharks and Rays.   

Because IWT is a complex problem with many products, markets, and players, there is unfortunately not one single approach to address the issue. In October 2018, heads of states of 80 nations attended the London conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade and made commitments to tackle IWT. Indonesia was well represented at the event by government officials, academics, and NGOs.    

One major challenge in combating the illegal trade is correct species identification, especially when the species of origin is unrecognizable or the product is processed and includes multiple species. We lack reliable and feasible methods to monitor and enforce the regulations on legal harvest and export, versus those that are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as subject to bans or quotas.   

Determining the species of shark meat, for example, is difficult by visual methods and can be addressed by genetic species identification. Organisms have their own unique DNA sequence (DNA barcode). Similar to a fingerprint, DNA barcodes can be used to identify the species origin of a product. The ability to identify products in real time enables agencies to take action—e.g. by confiscating products and improving conservation strategies for species in trade. Such actions further identify new species for CITES listing and greater protection of wild species. 

Over the past decade, portable technologies, including miniature sequencing and DNA detection tools, have been developed and can determine species based on DNA barcodes; these devices have great potential in the fight against wildlife crime. Affordable, compact, and easy-to-use, these technologies can facilitate law enforcement by enabling local capacity-building and increased wildlife genetic research as labs can be more easily established and deployed to the field.   

Wildlife genetic studies are often daunting because of the long approval process of obtaining permits to collect and send samples from the field for analysis. The relatively low cost of these portable devices could allow scientists to generate much needed baseline data rapidly on-site, shortening the permit process.    

Government-approved labs could be easily established at leading institutions, reducing the time for wildlife forensic and biodiversity research. Trained law enforcement officials can also use these technologies to monitor trade.   

Conservation genetics research in Indonesia has been growing steadily. Last week’s National Seminar and Focus Group Discussion on Wildlife Genetics, led by the University of Indonesia and WCS Indonesia, brought together policymakers and national scientists from multiple agencies for the first time to discuss coordination of wildlife genetics research to support law enforcement and monitoring trade to protect Indonesia’s biodiversity.   

It is an important step toward the long-term goal of developing a National Wildlife Genetics Consortium in the country. The international scientific community can support these efforts by sharing expertise, and providing training opportunities for Indonesian students, scientists, and law enforcement agents.   

One of the repeated messages at the London IWT conference was that greater collaboration is needed—not just with new partners from the private sector, but between existing organizations working to end wildlife crime.   

Our collaboration, which grew from this conference, was a natural one. We are some of the few geneticists who have been working on species threatened by IWT, and in recent years developing and applying portable molecular tech to IWT issues.   

However, as much as our inner geeks delight in the current tiny gadgets, these new technologies will not revolutionize conservation unless we develop and design them together with partners who implement these tools in the field.   

Technology has mostly been used to devastate wildlife populations across the planet, from industrial scale agricultural machines to high-tech weapons to social media for illegal online sales. It’s time we stop letting greed drive our use of tech and think about #techforgood, #conservationtech, #sciencedemocratization, and keep Indonesian wildlife safe for future generations.    


Adeline Seah has a PhD in Genetics and is a Molecular Pathology Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo. Stefan Prost has a PhD and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany.