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Experts: Forensic science ‘a must’ to combat illegal wildlife trade

The tour US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, in the United States gives the Philippine delegation a glimpse on the necessary elements, components and personnel and logistical needs in setting up a wildlife forensics laboratory. Members of the Philippine delegation examine skull specimens inside the laboratory.

As the Philippines intensify efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade, organizers and participants of a three-day national conference on wildlife forensics held in Mandaue City in the middle of July have affirmed the need to enhance the country’s capacity in the application of science to pursue cases involving wildlife crime.

The conference, dubbed “Wildlife Forensics as a Tool in Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking,” co-organized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the USAID through the Protect Wildlife Project and the US Department of Interior through its Partnership for Biodiversity Conservation from July 16 to 18, tackled the lucrative illegal wildlife trade, globally estimated to be worth $10 billion a year.

Organized crime

Wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative transnational crime, next to illegal drugs, arms and human trafficking. 

In the Philippines, with an illegal wildlife trade worth around P50 billion or $1 billion a year, law enforcers believe that wildlife trafficking is getting worse, with criminal syndicates becoming more clever to avoid arrest and prosecution.

Roberto M. Aguda, head of the secretariat of the National Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee (Nalecc) for the DENR, briefed the participants, mostly wildlife law enforcers from various DENR field offices, of the current initiatives on wildlife forensics and criminal investigation training. Aguda represented DENR Assistant Secretary for Field Operations Marcial Amaro Jr.

He said that unlike ordinary crimes, environmental crimes, wildlife crime in particular, has far-reaching effects to the environment, health, security and the economy of nations.

As such, he said “all available methods and system that strengthen government programs to combat it must be utilized.”

Not lagging behind

Forensic science, he said, is one field that is currently being strengthened to bolster efforts against wildlife trafficking.

The Philippines, once declared a consumer, source and transit point of illegal wildlife, is not lagging behind in this effort.

He cited that the Institute of Biology of the University of the Philippines Diliman (UP-IB) has established a wildlife forensics laboratory, which the DENR and other law enforcement agencies are able to tap to boost investigation and case buildup.

He said the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) has entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with UP-IB for the DNA barcoding of some of the commonly traded wildlife species endemic to the Philippines.

Moreover, during the first Wildlife Law Enforcement Summit in November 2016, as a way forward for the Philippines on wildlife forensics science, wildlife law enforcement officers must undergo training, hence, the “Wildlife Forensics and Criminal Investigation Training” design was developed for the purpose.

Species identification

Dr. Ian Kendrich C. Fontanilla, head of the DNA Barcoding Laboratory of the UP-IB, said with the country being one of the megadiverse countries in the world, identifying hundreds of thousands of wildlife species is already a challenge.    

At the minimum, he said it will require around 15,000 taxonomist to identify all species of flora and fauna in 7,641 islands and islets in the Philippine archipelago.

High in endemism, he said the Philippines’s known flora and fauna are endemic species or species that can be found only in the Philippines.  

DNA barcoding, he said, is so accurate and can be very useful in identifying species from specimen submitted for laboratory testing.

Fontanilla, who is batting for the establishment of a network of forensic laboratories in the Philippines, said forensic science, however, also relies heavily on the identification of unknown samples to their known species, because many species have not been identified and properly recorded, yet.

As such, experts in taxonomy will be highly qualified as wildlife forensics.

Proper identification of species from a specimen, he said, can be via the taxonomic keys, guides, written description, specimen comparison usually from herbaria or museums, image comparison, and expert determination.

DNA barcoding

However, Fontanilla said law enforcement agents are hampered by their inability to accurately and instantly identify species, either because they are not trained taxonomists themselves, or the animals they confiscate are no longer intact.

In such case, he said DNA barcoding may come to play.

DNA barcoding is defined as a taxonomic method that uses one or more standardized short genetic markers in an organism’s DNA to identify it as belonging to a particular species. 

“Through this method, unknown DNA samples are identified to registered species based on comparison to a reference library,” said Barcode of Life Data System (BOLDSystem) in its web site. 

BOLDSystem is an informatics workbench aiding the acquisition, storage, analysis and publication of DNA barcode records.

DNA barcoding makes use of a small section of DNA sequence from a standardized region of the genome to identify species, according to Fontanilla.

“Through barcoding, unknown individuals could be assigned to species,” Fontanilla said.

BOLD, CBOL

The Philippines, he said, is doing its share in the global effort to build a wildlife database through DNA barcoding under the BOLDSystem. It is a member of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL).

Launched in May 2004, CBOL now includes more than 120 organizations from 45 nations. The consortium fosters the development of international research alliances needed to build, over the next 20 years, a barcode library for all eukaryotic life.

The Philippines—which started the initiative on DNA barcoding through the late Perry Ong, then the head of the UP-IB, and former DENR-BMB Director and now Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim, in 2008—have a modest contribution to BOLD.

Under the DENR-BMB and UP IB partnership, specimens collected by the DENR-BMB, including confiscated wildlife, are submitted to the UP-IB’s DNA Barcoding Laboratory for analysis and recording.

The Philippines’s barcodes on BOLD as far as barcode count is concerned include 27,639 sequences, 3,586 named species, 4,772 Barcode Index Numbers (BINs).

Special Coverage includes 141 species of plants, 1,885 species of vertebrates, 1,076 species of arthropod, and 510 species of other inverts. BIN coverage includes 2,010 vertebrates, 1,460 arthropod, and 1,216 other inverts.

The figures, he said, are a modest contribution compared to the country’s biodiversity in terms of numbers of species. 

“What we need is do more DNA barcoding, and get more samples or specimens to help build our database,” he said.

According to Fontanilla, the applications of DNA barcoding include the discovery of new species, biodiversity assessment, Phylogenetic studies of closely related taxa, and regulation of export and import of endangered species.

Effective fighting tool

During the conference, two actual wildlife crime cases were presented as proof that wildlife forensics is an effective fighting tool in wildlife crime investigation and in combatting the illegal trade in wildlife.

Rainier Manlegro, Ecosystem Management specialist of the DENR Central Visayas Enforcement Division, presented the marine turtle case involving a dead female marine turtle discovered in the Acapulco Beach in Barangay Canaoay, San Fernando, La Union, on May 8, 2019. 

Through an examination of the carcass of the marine turtle, the cause of death was determined—gastrointestinal problem caused by ingested hook and line.   In this case, however, the marine turtle was killed by accident.

For his part, Esteven Toledo of the DENR-BMB cited the need to bring a specimen from still unidentified dried bush to the laboratory in UP to identify the species that led to the arrest of suspects involved in wildlife crime.

A joint operation by the DENR-BMB’s Task Force Pogi, the National Bureau of Investigation Environmental Crime Division and DENR Calabarzon region, the 2018 Bantigi Case stemmed from a report from members of a nongovernment organization regarding the alleged massive harvesting of the plant species.  

Bantigi is found in Australia, French Polynesia, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. It is collected for trade as bonsai ornaments and as fuel wood despite being identified as a threatened species. It is nationally protected in the country under Wildlife Act with “endangered” category in accordance with DENR Administrative Order 2017-11 dated May 2, 2017.

Upon confirmation that the species was bantigi, law enforcers were able to confiscate a total 34 sacks of illegally harvested bantigi plants.

Eventually, the suspect pleaded guilty, sentencing by the local court for six months incarceration and a fine of P10,000.

Toledo said it would have been impossible for law enforcers to identify the species of the plant they discovered had it not been through the help of the laboratory tests conducted on the specimen.

‘A necessity’ in wildlife crime investigation

Organizers of the event said a fully functioning wildlife forensic laboratory has become a necessity that will require an interagency collaboration. 

“There is recognition and it is timely for the need to strengthen the capacity of the government in wildlife forensics,” said Ma. Ronely D. Bisquera-Sheen, in-country coordinator of US Department of Interior, International Technical Assistance Program for the Partnership for Biodiversity Conservation.

Asis G. Perez, of Tanggol Kalikasan and former director of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), said with such affirmation of the need to put up a forensic laboratory, a way forward is to determine the design or overall look, and what laboratory equipment is needed.

“In preparation for the establishment of the laboratory, the participants agreed to conduct an assessment and inventory of the different collection or specimens we have and catalog it.  Forensics is not just about genetics, there is also morphology.  They saw the need to organize what we have,” Perez said.  

Aguda said a policy recommendation will soon be drafted and submitted to the DENR chief consistent with an action plan proposal.

Being a major driver of biodiversity loss, illegal trade in wildlife—which experts believe is no longer just about hunger and poverty but an economic crime—requires, more often than not, intensive investigation and the proper application of forensic science.

Indeed, to effectively combat illegal wildlife trade and the more lucrative wildlife trafficking in a global scale, wildlife forensics is an added tool and a must for wildlife law enforcement. 

Image credits: USAID Protect Wildlife Project



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