DNA Forensics Providing Greater Convictions in Wildlife Crime
7th Mar, 2019
- In 2016, some 16 poachers were jailed for killing lions in Gir National Park in Gujarat, home to the only wild population of Asiatic Lions.
- It was the first case of wildlife crime where cutting-edge forensics was deployed. Criminal investigation department in Ahmedabad cracked the case using DNA fingerprinting and narcoanalysis.
- With investigating agencies facing increased challenges of collecting evidence to ensure convictions in wildlife crimes, DNA forensics are providing a major headway.
- In November 2017, 23-year-old youth from North 24 Parganas in West Bengal killed a wild animal and posted photographs on a social media platform.
- State Forest Department officials tracked down the man but by then the meat were half cooked and the accused denied all allegations.
- A forensic DNA analysis showed that the meat was that of the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus), a Schedule II species protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
- The analysis helped Forest Department officials press charges against the youth and in further prosecution of the case.
- Zoological Survey of India recently published a report, titled “Ascertaining species of origin from confiscated meat using DNA forensics and Wildlife forensics in nullifying the false accusation”.
Status of Wildlife crimes and rate of conviction:
- Illegal wildlife crime is not confined to a region.
- This is an organized crime where several people are involved — from local hunters to the end buyers. This calls for an urgent need to employ techniques of DNA forensics to improve conviction rate which at present remains very low.
- Morphology-based identification protocol: In most cases the samples ZSI receive from investigating agencies in cases of wildlife crime are disfigured and have lost characters of morphological identity, which poses a major challenge.
Attempt is to create a ‘database’:
- Efforts are not confined up to species identification but are also involved in creating a reference database to assign the seizures to the source of origin, identifying sexes from seizures to understand poaching/ hunting pressure on the species which might impact the species demography in coming year.
- ZSI is one of four organizations authorized by the Government of India to submit species identification reports from the confiscated materials.
- DNA analysis at the ZSI: It can identify samples at the molecular level using DNA forensics.
- Universal Primer Technology (UPT): Developed by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, is essentially a DNA barcoding method used for accurate and quick identification of species from tiny biological samples.
- How UPT works: UPT is based on the concept that a genome segment can serve as a ‘molecular signature’. Variations in its DNA sequence can be used to identify any animal, bird or fish from a biological sample.
- The technology would provide scientific evidence admissible in a court of law, in cases related to poaching, bush meat hunting, and illegal trade in wildlife products.
- It will also help food safety officials detect adulteration of animal meat in food products. So, if traders or hoteliers have substituted mutton with cheaper beef, it will show up in the test results.
What is DNA forensics?
DNA forensics is a branch of forensic science that focuses on the use of genetic material in criminal investigation to answer questions pertaining to legal situations, including criminal and civil cases.
Involvement of locals in poaching:
- A tribe called Baheliyas or Pardhis is notorious for its involvement in poaching (or helping a poacher).
- Bloodstains found on their clothes and the scrapings of the underside of their fingernails were forensically validated in the Gir lion killing incident and the forensics experts found that the blood on the clothes and in the scraping was of a lion.
- This scientific evidence helped the prosecution to successfully convict the tribe members.
How to make convictions effective:
Convictions can come in less than two years after the crime. This could be very quick for wildlife cases. Till now wildlife forensics have been limited to identifying an animal by parts. Forensics can easily be used in wildlife investigation, but the forest department does not have the training to do a proper investigation. Coordination among forest officials, police and customs is also needed.
What is required is a national database on poachers and traders, and exchange of information between states and countries.
UNEP has been recognizing Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) of India for its excellent work in combating trans-boundary environmental crimes.
- WCCB has been conferred award for 2018 in ‘Innovation’ category for adopting techniques that have dramatically increased enforcement of trans-boundary environmental crimes in India.
International conventions related to Wild Life conservation of which India is a party:
- Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES): In order to regulate international trade in endangered species of Wild Life, the CITES was signed in March 1973. The Government of India signed the Convention in July 1976, which was ratified in October 1976.The Director, Wild Life Preservation has been designated as the CITES Management Authority for India.
- World Heritage Convention: India is a member of World Heritage Convention responsible for listing of World Heritage Sites, which include both cultural and natural sites. The World Heritage Convention is a Convention under the aegis of UNESCO. Wild Life wing of the Ministry of Environment and Forests is associated with the conservation of the Natural World Heritage sites. Currently, six natural World Heritage Sites have been recognized by UNESCO in India, viz., Nanda Devi National Park, Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park, Keoladeo National Park, Sundarbans National Park. Apart from these, the Valley of Flowers National Park has also been included in the list of World Heritage Sites as an extension of Nanda Devi National Park.
- Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS): Or Bonn Convention aims to conserve migratory species throughout their range. The Convention came into force in 1979. India is a signatory to the convention since 1983.
- International Whaling Commission: The purpose of the Convention is to provide for conservation of whale stocks. The main duty of the International Whaling Commission is to keep under review and revise as necessary the measures laid down in the schedule to the Convention which governs the conduct of whaling throughout the world. These measures, among other things, provide complete protection of certain species, designate specified areas as whale sanctuaries, limit the number of whales which may be taken, prescribe open and closed seasons and designate areas for whaling; prohibit the capture of suckling calves and female whales accompanied by calves. India has been a member of the International Whaling Commission since 1981.
- Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): It entered into force on 29 December 1993. It has 3 main objectives: The conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity; the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.
With investigating agencies facing increased challenges of collecting evidence to ensure convictions in wildlife crimes, DNA forensics are providing a major headway. Discuss.