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DNA Detectives

Broad-Headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Alan Couch.

Dr Greta Frankham, DNA tools to curb the illegal pet trade, Australian Museum Blog, 26 May 2015

Our ability to detect the illegal trade in a threatened Australian snake species has just increased.

The illegal trade of wildlife is estimated to be a US$7-23 billion industry. While most of the animals targeted for this trade are destined for use in traditional medicines, curios, souvenirs or used as status symbols, there is also a thriving illegal pet trade.

Much of the proliferation in wildlife crime can be attributed to so called ‘legal grey areas’ in environmental legislation. For example, it may be legal to keep, breed and sell a threatened species if you possess the right licenses or permits. However it can be technically challenging and time consuming for the authorities overseeing these permits to police the legitimacy of pedigrees and ‘captive breeding events’ claimed by licensed breeders.

While most breeders do the right thing, there have been reports of some illegally supplementing litters/clutches with extra individuals captured from the wild, or substituting deceased individuals with individuals caught illegally from the wild.

We here at the Australian Museum Research Institute, in collaboration with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, have been developing genetic methods to provide pedigree data for a threatened Australian snake species; the broad-headed snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) which can be kept/bred/sold in Australia with the right permits.

Broad-headed Snakes are restricted to only a few populations in and around Sydney and the species is listed as Endangered in New South Wales. Along with habitat loss, the illegal collection of individuals from the wild has been noted as a key threatening process to this species.

To help identify illegally captured individuals we developed 16 forensically useful microsatellite loci which have been used to establish a genetic ‘DNA fingerprint’ database of all captive individuals (privately owned and in zoos). This database now has the power to identify related individuals, validate claims of parentage, track pedigrees, and detect any illegally collected individuals based on parentage. This database should prove to be a strong deterrent for any future illegal collection of individuals from the wild, ultimately aiding the future conservation of this charismatic Sydney reptile.

Greta Frankham
Head (Acting), Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics

More information:
Frankham, G. J., Hinds, M. C., & Johnson, R. N. (2015). Development of 16 forensically informative microsatellite loci to detect the illegal trade of broad headed snakes (Hoplocephalus bungaroides). Conservation Genetics Resources, 7, 533-535.