Conservation Forensics Helping to Fight Illegal Wildlife Trafficking
Illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative criminal trade in the world and is estimated to generate up to US$20 billion in illicit revenue a year. Millions of animals and plants are traded every year threatening the survival of many endangered species. With more species on the brink of extinction, illegal profits surging and with no sign that the trade is slowing down, HKU School of Biological Sciences has adopted conservation forensics to provide authorities investigating illegal wildlife trafficking with accurate scientific data to use against traffickers.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative criminal trade in the world and is estimated to generate up to US$20 billion in illicit revenue a year. Millions of animals and plants are traded every year threatening the survival of many endangered species.
WWF, the leading organisation in wildlife conservation and endangered species, says there are records of over 100 million tonnes of fish, 1.5 million live birds and 440,000 tonnes of medicinal plants being traded in just one year. This is just a glimpse of the scale of wildlife trafficking.
At the top of the list of smuggled animals are elephants, rhinos, tigers, leopards, bears, turtles and pangolins. Much of the trade in these species comes through Hong Kong which has long been an entrepot for illegal wildlife trafficking, with mainland China the ultimate market for many of the animals or their products.
With more species on the brink of extinction, illegal profits surging and with no sign that the trade is slowing down, scientists have adopted conservation forensics to provide authorities investigating illegal wildlife trafficking with accurate scientific data to use against traffickers.
“Conservation forensics is a combination of two disciplines, conservation biology which aims to understand the conservation status of endangered species on our planet, and also forensics which is the scientific study of crime,” said Dr David Baker, Assistant Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Hong Kong. “We offer the ability to use DNA tools to identify the species identity based on its DNA and then we also use stable isotope technologies to understand where an organism might have come from.”
Dr Caroline Dingle, a member of the conservation forensics research group, is currently leading studies of two critically endangered species, the helmeted hornbill and the yellow-crested cockatoo, both of which are under threat from poachers in their native range.
The hornbill is in demand for the solid casque that forms part of its beak. The casque is made of keratin, similar to a rhino’s horn, and is carved into beads and other decorative items. In 2015 the species was classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The yellow-crested cockatoo is also critically endangered as numbers have declined dramatically in their native range due to illegal trapping for the cage-bird trade. Its population in Hong Kong may be an important refuge population for the conservation of the species.
The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, which has records going back to the 1950s, has provided the team with field data on the cockatoos which is being assessed as part of a research study to see if the population in Hong Kong is sustainable.
Ms Woo Ming Chuan, Senior Conservation Officer of the Society, plans to use research data from the School of Biological Sciences in campaigns to raise people's awareness of these kinds of threatened species and Hong Kong’s role in wildlife trafficking.
Dr Baker hopes that the scientific evidence they provide will help authorities disrupt the supply chains by prosecuting wildlife smugglers and that in the long-term this will help foster the conservation of these threatened species for the future.