New Test Detects Poachers’ DNA on Animal Remains

GLASGOW, Scotland, September 27, 2011 (ENS) – For the first time, suspected poachers can now be tracked through tests for traces of human DNA on deer remains, according to scientists at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and the Scottish Police.

Their research is the first time that human DNA profiles have been obtained successfully from an animal carcass. The scientists are exploring the method’s potential for identifying poachers of animals other than deer.

“Our research has picked up DNA at very low levels and could be a significant breakthrough in wildlife crime,” said Dr. Shanan Tobe, a research fellow in the Centre for Forensic Science in Strathclyde’s Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Dr. Shanan Tobe in his lab. (Photo courtesy U. Strathclyde)

“It could not only help to catch existing poachers but could also act as a deterrent to others,” he said.

Identifying poachers of wildlife – whether deer or larger animals such as rhino or elephants – can be problematic, as the crimes are often committed in remote areas and are not discovered until sometime after the event.

Poachers’ practice of disassembling a carcass often means that little physical evidence, and consequently little human DNA, is left behind.

“Poaching can be extremely difficult to investigate and prosecute owing to the nature of the evidence available,” said Dr. Tobe. “There are particular problems with deer poaching because deer can be legally hunted in season and identifying deer alone would not show whether or not they had been killed in the course of poaching.”

Dr. Tobe worked with Jim Govan, a forensic scientist with the Scottish Police Services Authority, to develop a method that can pick up low levels of DNA and identify poachers.

The researchers obtained DNA samples from the legs of 10 deer which had been legally culled as deer are in the UK under freezing and other extreme conditions.

“All deer samples used in the study were obtained from deer as part of an annual cull. No animals were harmed for the purpose of the research,” the University of Strathclyde said in a statement announcing the research results.

Buck fallow deer, Dama dama. This species of fallow deer found in Britain was introduced by the Normans in the 10th C. (Photo courtesy The British Deer Society)

The forensic scientists examined the deer carcasses for matches of DNA provided by volunteers who had taken part in the cull. The tests yielded results that could be matched back to the volunteer hunter of each deer.

The chances of the DNA profiles picked up by this method being randomly found within the population would be less than one in a billion, the scientists said.

They say their method also could be used on other evidence in wildlife crime. They could test such evidentiary materials such as feathers, eggs, snares or traps for DNA.

Scottish Minister for Environment and Climate Change Stewart Stevenson said, “I welcome this development which demonstrates Scotland is at the forefront of the application of this cutting-edge science.”

“The ability to test for the remains of human DNA on animal carcasses, gives law enforcers more tools to protect our wildlife from criminal activity,” said Stevenson. “I look forward to hearing more about how this development can be used practically in tackling the illegal activity of deer poaching.”

More than half of the funding for the research came from Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, Scotland which is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage.

The remaining funds came from the British Association for Shooting & Conservation, the British Deer Society and the Deer Commission for Scotland, which is now part of Scottish Natural Heritage.

The research paper, “Recovery of human DNA profiles from poached deer remains: A feasibility study,” is published in the journal “Science and Justice.”

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