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Pakistan adopts DNA barcoding to check illegal wildlife trade

Updated August 29, 2015

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Earlier this year, over 200 black pond turtles destined for Bangkok, were confiscated at the Karachi airport. —AFP/File
Earlier this year, over 200 black pond turtles destined for Bangkok, were confiscated at the Karachi airport. —AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has become the first country in the region to adopt DNA barcoding to control the illegal wildlife trade.

The DNA barcoding is a taxonomic method that uses a short genetic marker in an organism’s DNA to identify which particular species it belongs to.

A report on the new method, tried and tested by the directorate of biodiversity, Ministry of Climate Change, earlier this year said the DNA testing method was gaining acceptance to detect and stop cross-border smuggling of endangered species in the developed world.

The report, available with Dawn, also emphasises the arduous task of collecting samples of animals in the wild and those bred in captivity and maintaining their DNA bank.

Earlier this year, over 200 black pond turtles destined for Bangkok, were confiscated at the Karachi airport. Another consignment of turtles of the same species was caught at the Chinese border which was then repatriated to Pakistan. The species were later released in their native habitat.

However, the DNA testing method was first tried in March 2015 when customs officials confiscated a shipment of nearly 2,000 kilogrammes of freshwater turtle meat worth $60 million.

The consignment was being shipped out of Pakistan under the label ‘fish meat’ for a black market destination in Southeast Asia. According to an official in the Ministry of Climate Change, the shape, colour, shells and bones made the consignment suspicious.

“Smugglers have devised new means of carrying out their illicit practice. Instead of live turtles, they now try to smuggle its meat by labeling it as fish meat, a legal trade item. But with the scientific tools available, officials were able to identify the species’ source and tell that the meat came from the endangered species,” said Javed Mahar of the Sindh Wildlife Department.

The confiscated consignment in March 2015 was of turtles native to the Indus River and listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that restricts trade to ensure its survival. As many as 4,000 turtles were killed and were being shipped out of Pakistan.

According to the official, the poaching, catching, trapping, netting and using parts, trading, transporting and exporting are also prohibited under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1972, as well as the Pakistan Trade Control of Wild Fauna and Flora Act 2012.

“The results of samples taken from the confiscated ‘fish meat’ showed 99 per cent similarity with the endangered species of freshwater turtles also known as the Indian flap-shelled turtle,” said Javed Mahar.

According to the expert, the DNA testing method was widely applicable, rapid, cost effective and authentic to control the illegal wildlife trade.

The official also elaborated on how collecting DNA samples of animals in the wild and those bred in captivity was necessary to determine the origin of the species.

“It sounds like an impossible task but it has to be done in Pakistan where smuggling of endangered species is on the rise. A major reason for failing to curb the transportation of protected species is the unavailability of scientific tools. The availability of advanced scientific tools like the DNA barcoding can prove best to overcome these difficulties because of its quick and valid outcomes,” the official said.

Scientific tools were being applied again to determine the origin of another shipment confiscated by customs in Karachi roughly a month ago.

“Customs officials have sent a sample from a container of an animal fur. The fur has been so treated that it’s impossible to tell what animal it came from. The results will be available soon.”

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2015

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