Globally, poaching has become ever more violent and the smuggling of wildlife parts increasingly sophisticated by organized crime groups. On his recent trip to Africa, President Obama highlighted the gravity of this problem, drawing renewed attention to the issue. Here in Nepal, the Red Panda and other wildlife parts traders being arrested by the police appear regularly in the news, sometimes with the exchange of gunfire and physical brawls.
What law enforcement agencies often lack in their fight against wildlife trafficking is genetic data on the animals and animal parts being trafficked. Knowing where confiscated parts might have originated, or even the specific animal they belonged to, can help law enforcement crack down on an entire smuggling operation. A regionally shared database is key to giving law enforcement the upper hand, and it would also help conservationists and researchers in their work to protect the animals and their habitats. For this, standardization is integral. And the technology developed in Nepal, with assistance from USAID, might just help do that.
Over the past two years, scientists in Nepal have been building a national DNA database of the endangered Bengal tigers living in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape—one of the few remaining tiger habitats on earth. Multiple teams collected 1,200 samples of tiger scat (the term used for feces of carnivores) from four national parks, and then analyzed and recorded a unique genetic fingerprint for each tiger.
“Knowing more accurately how many tigers are in the wild, and where they live, is critically important to protecting them and their habitats at national, regional and global levels,” said Bronwyn Llewellyn, Environment Officer at USAID/Nepal. “This project offered the potential to address most of these questions in a non-invasive way that was potentially more cost-effective than the existing conventional practices, such as camera trapping or tracking pugmarks.”
Designed by the Center for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal and supported by USAID, the Nepal Tiger Genome Project (NTGP) is setting a new standard for wildlife conservation with applicability for other endangered species worldwide.
What is unique about the NTGP is not the way the samples are collected, but rather the way in which the data from those samples have been catalogued. The technology developed for the project is very sophisticated and detailed, with up to 17 different genetic markers for each animal. These selected genetic markers not only provide extremely detailed information on each individual animal but also the population as a whole, including genetic health and population diversity. The standard, until now, has usually been nine genetic markers.
This sort of groundbreaking work has huge promise. “A potential next step following the work of the NTGP could be the development of a regional platform of tiger genetic fingerprints for conservation management and wildlife enforcement in the South Asia region,” said Ari Nathan, the U.S. State Department’s Regional Environment Officer for South Asia. Indeed, the regional wildlife crime meeting organized earlier this month in New Delhi by Interpol recognized the need for a centralized DNA database of endangered wildlife, including tigers, and noted NTGP as an example of the kind of technology and platform to emulate, including its searchable database with geo-reference capability.
Later this year, the Center for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal will start working on a massive genetic catalog of Nepal’s biodiversity. The Center has also established itself as a natural partner for several international researchers and research institutions in Nepal, like Stanford University.
Back at the Nepal Tiger Genome Project lab in Kathmandu, work on the project is wrapping up. The lab was buzzing with young scientists hunched over computers and other equipment on a recent stormy monsoon afternoon. A scene promising unprecedented innovation for conservation or beyond, given a nudge from a tiger project, is now poised to take on a lot more.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the USAID Impact Blog.