DNA tests : A breakthrough for wildlife forensics

By WTI in New Delhi: Thanks to the synergy between bio-technology and information technology, wildlife crime investigations have now been made simpler and accurate with the introduction of DNA tests.The Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, have developed this first-of-its-kind procedure to identify the species of the animal whose parts have been confiscated. All that is needed for the test is a tiny piece of meat, a drop of blood, a bunch of hair, a clipped claw, a piece of bone etc. These DNA tests bypass the hurdles of badly preserved animal samples and even the quantity of sample available. This seems especially relevant in the context of the ongoing amnesty scheme run by the Government of India to make people declare their wildlife possessions. The tests will make it much simpler in the verification of shahtoosh shawls, for example.

Dr. Lalji Singh, Director of the CCMB, said, “We are able to isolate the unique signature in the DNA fragment of the animal and quickly match it with the rapidly growing database of signatures from the animal world that we possess today, to come to a solid conclusion”. The institute already has a signature bank of about 2,000 known animal species. They plan to build a database of 50,000 signatures of animals in the coming years so that the tool comes in handy for a range of applications.

WII is also addressing itself to the problem of standardizing protocols for extracting DNA from Wildlife Forensic materials that are putrefied and developing markers using molecular techniques like mitochondrial DNA etc. They “intend to identify source of origin of tiger, leopard and elephant based on autosomal microsatellite markers”.

This was made possible after scientists were able to identify a particular DNA strand that is found in all living organisms and contains specie-specific data. The second challenge was to develop a biological tool that will decode this. The examination is done by matching this strand with another one from the DNA data bank. The tests can replace the expensive laboratory set-up where vast collections of morphological and biochemical markers of different animals are maintained to provide scientific evidence.

This new technique has already had a successful real-life trial too. The CCMB helped the Chennai Zoo track down a ‘mystery’ animal that had been troubling inmates at the Zoo as also spreading panic at nearby villages. The Zoo authorities collected faecal matter and sent it to the CCMB for DNA analysis. The sample was rightly analyzed at the Lab and the identity of the animal was established as a ‘leopard’. Soon, a trap was laid by the zoo officials and an 8-10 year old male leopard was trapped. Besides this, the CCMB has solved several other cases in the country and has even started getting enquiries about the same from the European nations. The tests will be carried out at the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCoNes), which is being set up as CCMB Annexe-I on a seven-acre campus near the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad.

Courtesy: WTI

May 14, 2003