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DNA technology busts wildlife poachers

Using forensic DNA techniques, Ginger Clark, front, and Daniel Brazeau, back, researchers at the University of Florida, examine images of DNA fragments to help Florida wildlife officers track animal poachers  
ENN



May 29, 2000
Web posted at: 11:40 a.m. EDT (1540 GMT)

Poachers, beware.

Game officials are using the same DNA technology that has long solved crimes against people to nab offenders of wildlife.

Techniques used at a University of Florida laboratory have proved so successful in prosecuting deer poachers that officials recently went there for help in cases involving wild turkeys, turtles, alligators and other illegally hunted species in Florida.

"This technology has a lot of power, which is why human DNA forensics is so significant," said Daniel Brazeau, director of the laboratory at the University of Florida.

Universities in Idaho, Wyoming, California and Maine have also developed wildlife crime laboratories.

The DNA forensics process involves a molecular biology technique called polymerase chain reaction. The method allows researchers to make millions of copies of DNA from a tiny sample — even a drop of blood — and then sequence the DNA to establish its precise genetic code. The code is compared with samples from known animal species to confirm or rule out a match.

Ginger Clark, a senior biological scientist at the University of Florida, developed a technique that can not only determine the species of an organism based on tissue samples or blood but also the gender of the organism. That distinction has been important in Florida where the hunting season for doe on public lands lasts only two days.

"The ability to genetically identify illegally taken meat will slow down poaching efforts as the word gets around that it is possible to identify that meat to species and gender," Clark said.

In several instances, game officers have sent the lab samples of animal flesh confiscated from hunters. All of the lab's 30 cases have resulted in settlements in favor of the prosecution, Clark said.

DNA testing determined sailfish, a saltwater game fish that cannot be bought or sold under federal law, was consumed in three sushi restaurants in Florida  

"I wish I had had [the technology] 20 years ago," said Captain Barry Cook of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office in Gainesville.

So far, the lab has helped crack about 30 poaching cases in the state. In a recent case, three sushi restaurants in Brower County, Florida, were found guilty of selling sailfish, a game fish that cannot be bought or sold under federal law. DNA testing confirmed that the fish labeled as "tuna" on the menu was indeed sailfish.

"This type of evidence is just that cut-and-dried," Cook said.

As a result of the University of Florida lab's work, all game officers in the state are now equipped with sampling kits to obtain DNA evidence during investigations.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved




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