Wildlife CSI

Aus­tralian science is catch­ing up with il­le­gal traf­fick­ers of pre­cious wildlife.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY AN­GELA HEATH­COTE

Aus­tralian sci­ence is catch­ing up with il­le­gal wildlife traf­fick­ers.

CHRIS SHEPHERD FELT frus­trated and fu­ri­ous when he heard of yet an­other at­tempt to laun­der wild­caught echid­nas through In­done­sia. Trans­port­ing na­tive Aus­tralian fauna over­seas is tightly reg­u­lated but traders in In­done­sia ex­ploit loop­holes in the leg­is­la­tion and these echid­nas came with pa­per­work that de­scribed them as cap­tive-bred. As di­rec­tor of the South-East Asian branch of wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing net­work TRAFFIC, Chris sus­pected the pa­per­work was fake. He knew suc­cess­ful breed­ing of echid­nas in cap­tiv­ity was al­most un­heard of and shared his con­cerns with con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist Dr Phoebe Meagher and her Taronga Zoo col­leagues.

“One of Chris’s big­gest frus­tra­tions was that his team knew a lot of the poach­ers were forg­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion for echid­nas that had been caught in the wild and putting them down as cap­tive-bred,” Phoebe says. “I knew this couldn’t be right. Taronga, as a lead­ing Aus­tralian wildlife and con­ser­va­tion group, has only been able to breed a hand­ful of short-beaked echid­nas, de­spite con­certed ef­fort and ex­per­tise.”

Since 1900, fewer than 50 cap­tive-bred echid­nas are known to have sur­vived in­fancy. It was un­likely any pri­vate group had man­aged to breed the monotremes. Phoebe be­gan search­ing for a sci­en­tific way to prove Chris’s sus­pi­cions that these an­i­mals had been un­law­fully snatched from the wild.

THE IL­LE­GAL WILDLIFE trade is a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try world­wide and a huge threat to many en­dan­gered species, no­tably in Aus­tralia. Our birds and rep­tiles are par­tic­u­larly prized over­seas for their unique­ness; a sin­gle black cock­a­too, for ex­am­ple, can fetch up­wards of $30,000. But, as pun­ish­ments in­crease and reg­u­la­tions tighten, poach­ers and wildlife traf­fick­ers are be­com­ing more de­vi­ous. That many an­i­mals can le­git­i­mately be ex­ported if cap­tive-bred has only re­cently been ex­posed as a ma­jor le­gal loop­hole and given rise to the phe­nom­e­non of il­le­gal wildlife laun­der­ing.

It was this that saw Taronga form a task­force to iden­tify whether ex­ported na­tive fauna was wild-caught or le­git­i­mately cap­tive-bred. Phoebe joined forces with Taronga col­leagues Michelle Shaw, a zoo and wildlife nu­tri­tion­ist, and foren­sic wildlife pathol­o­gist Ly­dia Tong. Univer­sity of New South Wales foren­sic bi­ol­o­gist Dr Kate Bran­dis and Dr De­bashish Mazumder from the Aus­tra lian Nu­clear Sci­ence and Tech­nolog y Or­gan­i­sa­tion have also since be­come ma­jor col­lab­o­ra­tors.

The team now leads the charge against the laun­der­ing of wild an­i­mals by us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of two com­ple­men­tary tech­niques – sta­ble iso­tope anal­y­sis and X-ray nu­clear f lu­o­res­cence. These iden­tify per­ma­nent chem­i­cal sig­na­tures stored in ker­atin – a struc­tural pro­tein in hu­man hair and nails that’s also in feath­ers, quills and fur. Be­cause it re­tains a record of ev­ery­thing an an­i­mal eats, Phoebe and her col­leagues hoped to use the chem­i­cal sig­na­ture to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween an­i­mals fed an ar­ti­fi­cial diet and treated wa­ter, and an­i­mals for­ag­ing in the wild.

They put their the­ory to the test us­ing short-beaked echid­nas, which are prized over­seas as pets. By ex­am­in­ing chem­i­cal sig­na­tures in echidna quills, they suc­cess­fully es­tab­lished a dif­fer­ence be­tween cap­tive-bred and wild-caught an­i­mals. The work has re­sulted in a valu­able foren­sic tool for iden­ti­fy­ing il­le­gally traded wildlife and at­tracted the in­ter­est of not only TRAFFIC but the UN’s Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (CITES) team. It puts Aus­tralia at the fore­front of wildlife crime foren­sics.

THE SUC­CESS of this project, spon­sored by the Aus­tralian Geo­graphic So­ci­ety, is ex­pected to have pos­i­tive im­pli­ca­tions for other il­le­gal wildlife trade vic­tims. Re­cently, the Taronga group has fo­cused on the world’s most heav­ily traf­ficked mam­mal, the pan­golin. A small, shy an­i­mal, whose main de­fence when threat­ened is to curl into a ball, the pan­golin is an easy tar­get for poach­ers. In Africa, its meat is a sym­bol of wealth and in Asia its scales are used in tra­di­tional medicines, although claimed ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties are un­proven.

There are eight pan­golin species, two of which – the Sunda and Chi­nese pan­golin – are on the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture’s crit­i­cally en­dan­gered list, but all face il­le­gal traff ick­ing threats. “Be­cause the Asian pan­golin is very hard to f ind and the African pan­golin is do­ing slightly bet­ter, we get African pan­golins be­ing sold in Asia as Asian pan­golins. When it’s just the scales, you can’t tell where they’re from, which is where sta­ble iso­tope anal­y­sis comes in,” Phoebe ex­plains. “We want to know what trade routes are be­ing used by poach­ers.”

Sta­ble iso­tope anal­y­sis is now be­ing ap­plied to wildlife con­ser­va­tion in other ways, too. Last year, Save Viet­nam’s Wildlife, one of many or­gan­i­sa­tions ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing species world­wide, res­cued 400 pan­golins from poach­ers. “And that’s just the ones lucky enough to be found alive be­fore they were taken from their home coun­try,” Michelle says.

From such large-scale res­cues, chal­lenges have be­gun to sur­face. An or­gan­i­sa­tion sav­ing 400 pan­golins, for ex­am­ple, has to be able to feed ev­ery one of those an­i­mals and it can cost $50,000 a year just to buy ant eggs for them to eat. This will keep the an­i­mals alive, but doesn’t com­pare with the di­verse diet they have in the wild.

Michelle says learn­ing more about these an­i­mals’ di­ets through sta­ble iso­tope anal­y­sis is help­ing develop more nu­tri­tious feed for zoo an­i­mals. “Live pan­golins are sold by the kilo so traders pump their stom­achs with a corn gruel that’s like ce­ment,” she says. “It’s not nu­tri­tious at all; it’s just to make them heav­ier. It stretches their stom­achs and causes se­ri­ous health is­sues. When it f in­ally passes through their di­ges­tive sys­tem they’re left mal­nour­ished, with their stom­achs in a hor­ri­ble con­di­tion. Mak­ing them a feed that won’t ag­gra­vate them while in that com­pro­mised state is crit­i­cal to their care and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.” Sta­ble iso­tope anal­y­sis is be­ing used as part of in-depth re­search into the di­ets of wild an­i­mals and may – as a re­sult – im­prove how zoo an­i­mals are fed glob­ally.

“Pan­golins are sold by the kilo so traders pump their stom­achs with a corn gruel that’s like ce­ment.”

Ly­dia and Phoebe have also spent time ex­plor­ing how the tech­niques they are de­vel­op­ing can be rolled out in places like Cam­bo­dia, Viet­nam and In­done­sia, hotspots for the il­le­gal wildlife trade. Ly­dia, a vet­eri­nar­ian by train­ing, de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in vet­eri­nary foren­sics when di­ag­nos­ing abuse in an­i­mals for or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the RSPCA. And Phoebe has com­pleted ex­ten­sive f ield­work in the con­ser­va­tion of Aus­tralia’s most crit­i­cally en­dan­gered an­i­mals.

“We’re fo­cused on the en­force­ment out­come through a thor­ough roll-out,” Ly­dia says. “We in­tend tak­ing sam­ples from an­i­mals at key bot­tle­necks and col­lec­tion points. These will be sent to our world-class fa­cil­i­ties. The tests are very cheap, quick and con­sid­er­ably more ef­fec­tive than test­ing DNA. Each sta­ble iso­tope test is only $10. Those in­volved in the wildlife trade will have to have stocks cer­tif ied.”

THE TARONGA TEAM’S next mis­sion is to end the il­le­gal traf­fick­ing of ex­otic birds, start­ing with cock­a­toos in a project called Be­yond Borders. Rather than look­ing at cap­tive ver­sus wild, the project hopes to iden­tify where traf­ficked cock­a­toos have come from. Deter­min­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal ori­gin by us­ing feath­ers will help au­thor­i­ties iden­tify where to fo­cus their ef­forts, which would have a global im­pact on this il­le­gal trade, Ly­dia says. Cock­a­toos are the most highly laun­dered an­i­mals from Aus­tralia and the Asia-Pacif ic re­gion. Cru­elly smug­gled in­side wa­ter bot­tles and small cages, they of­ten per­ish be­fore they even ar­rive at a buyer’s des­ti­na­tion. Traff ick­ing has been fu­elled by sky­rock­et­ing de­mand in the past decade for our ex­otic birds. “So­cial me­dia is a new plat­form that can un­wit­tingly glam­or­ise the keep­ing of ex­otic pets, par­tic­u­larly birds, which may have been il­le­gally or un­eth­i­cally traded,” Ly­dia says. “It’s easy to post one cute photo that hides all of this in the back­ground. The owner may not have any idea ei­ther.” Re­cently, In­sta­gram has be­gun crack­ing down on ways the il­le­gal wildlife trade and an­i­mal cru­elty have seeped onto its plat­form. Its poli­cies al­ready pro­hibit an­i­mal abuse and the sale of en­dan­gered an­i­mals, and it has re­cently added a new con­tent ad­vi­sory when users search a hash­tag as­so­ci­ated with wildlife ex­ploita­tion. This is im­por­tant, Ly­dia says, be­cause we all have a part to play in end­ing the il­le­gal wildlife trade. “Public­ity around the enor­mous con­ser­va­tion and wel­fare is­sues of the il­le­gal wildlife trade is nec­es­sary to change peo­ple’s way of think­ing,” she says. “Even as a per­son work­ing in this field, it took work to ed­u­cate my­self to find out how bad it re­ally is. We all need to talk about it as much as pos­si­ble.”

More than a mil­lion pan­golins were es­ti­mated to have been il­le­gally traf­ficked around the world dur­ing the 10 years to 2017, lead­ing to an enor­mous de­cline in their wild pop­u­la­tion. Aus­tralian sci­en­tists are help­ing to put an end to the trade in these en­dear­ing ante-at­ing mam­mals.

A Carn­aby’s black cock­a­too can fetch $30,000 on the black mar­ket. Aus­tralian sci­en­tists hope new tests they are de­vel­op­ing to an­a­lyse feath­ers will one day put an end to the il­le­gal trade of wild birds.

An echidna’s quills hold a record of ev­ery­thing it’s eaten. Sci­en­tists can an­a­lyse them to tell if the an­i­mal has been fed a com­mer­cial diet or eaten nat­u­ral for­age, in­di­cat­ing it has come from the wild.

Phoebe and Ly­dia are pas­sion­ate about an­i­mal wel­fare and con­ser­va­tion. Now both women are wield­ing their con­sid­er­able pro­fes­sional sci­en­tific prow­ess as part of the Taronga-led team aim­ing to stop il­le­gal wildlife traf­fick­ing.

Taronga Zoo con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist Phoebe Meagher (above) is work­ing closely with the zoo’s head vet­eri­nary pathol­o­gist Ly­dia Tong (above right) to roll out a sta­ble iso­tope anal­y­sis pro­gram in South-East Asian traf­fick­ing hotspots.

The mis­taken be­lief by prac­ti­tion­ers of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine that pan­golin scales (be­low) cure can­cer, malaria and other ail­ments sees whole­sale slaugh­ter of the an­i­mals (above) and re­moval of their scales, which are made of mainly ker­atin, the same sub­stance that makes up our fin­ger­nails and hair.

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