Chimp genetic mapping could close off African trafficking routes

Research project offers hope of saving critically endangered West African chimpanzee

Data collected from more than 800 chimpanzees taken from the wild could support efforts to stop illegal traffickers. EPA
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Data collected from more than 800 chimpanzees taken from the wild could help conservationists return them to their natural habitat and combat illegal poaching of endangered apes.

Researchers at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona extracted genomes from hair and faecal samples of chimps, using similar techniques previously applied to tracing the origins of ivory illegally sold on the black market.

Scientists catalogued the genome of chimpanzees in the wild across 48 sites in 18 countries to create a genetic map, to pair with data collected from captive animals, or those confiscated from smugglers.

Once the genetic code is matched, researchers said they could find a chimp’s home in an area within 90 kilometres.

Mimi Arandjelovic, a biologist who worked on the research, said more samples from a wider geographical base would encourage a wider prosecution of traffickers.

“In countries where keeping wild, non-domesticated animals is legal, authorities probably have little way of obtaining samples from these animals,” she said.

“However, there is a large network of sanctuaries across the world housing apes, while apes and wildlife products are often confiscated at ports or seized in shipments.

Closing the net on wildlife traffickers

“That is where our work would be primarily targeted.”

Researchers were inspired to carry out the study after similar work by Dr Samuel Wasser, a University of Washington biologist, who identified unique ivory DNA that helped police the illicit international trade.

By identifying the two primary areas from which ivory was sourced, law enforcement was able to put limited resources into critical areas, rather than across the vast continent, to eliminate the largest amount of illegal killing.

“Working with elephants offers challenges we do not need to deal with,” Ms Arandjelovic said.

“Elephants can travel hundreds of kilometres in their lifetime, so geo-localisation is trickier.

“Male chimps stay either in their natal groups their entire life, or females migrate away from their natal group at maturity to some other group nearby.

”Being able to sample from large ivory confiscations and finding matching tusks in different shipments allows identification of poaching hotspots; with chimps orphans are usually confiscated one, or few, at a time although some larger confiscations of skulls and bushmeat projects have been done.”

Research offers vital insight into chimp populations

Although in its early stages, testing procedures have been developed in partnership with the Pan African Programme (PanAf) at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthroplogy in Leipzig, Germany. These are aimed at understanding the cultural diversity of chimpanzees across 40 populations.

Tomas Marques-Bonet, a scientist whose laboratory analysed 828 chimp samples, said collecting genomic data could provides clues on how the chimpanzee population is structured.

“The only limitation (of this method) is the logistics of the operation,” he said.

“So far, the lab technique can be done in any molecular lab with the proper equipment, but still needs collection, transportation and a report, which is less than ideal.

“The cost greatly varies, but as a rule of thumb is in the low hundreds of euros per sample.”

Poaching soared during pandemic

Wildlife trafficking increased during the pandemic, with poachers looking for animals to sell as exotic pets or bushmeat.

The recent monkeypox outbreak forced Nigeria to recently ban the sale of bushmeat in an effort to halt zoological diseases entering the human food chain.

Bushmeat, that often involves antelope, cane rat or tortoise, in Nigeria is thought to be one way in which disease jumps from animals to humans.

Anthropologist Dr Daniel Stiles, an independent illegal wildlife trade consultant who has worked with the UN, said DNA profiling of captive animals is becoming increasingly useful in countering wildlife crime.

“DNA geographical origin identification has great potential for learning where trafficked live wildlife or derivative products came from,” he said.

“But the limiting factors are having a lab that will run the tests and the cost.”

Great apes have formed a significant segment of exotic animal traffic to and through the UAE from Africa and Asia.

Dr Stiles identified trafficking trends with the Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS).

PEGAS documented 47 online illegal buyers or sellers of great apes based in the UAE.

At least 200 different social media accounts were identified via photos and videos posted of great apes for sale, comprising at least 133 chimps, 55 orangutans, one bonobo and two gorillas.

Most of the great apes identified were thought to have originated from prime locations across Africa, including Guinea, which is home to the largest remaining, critically endangered West African chimpanzee.

From 2017 to 2020, Guinea reported 33 chimpanzee seizures to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in its annual illegal trade summary, more than any other party.

Other chimps in captivity or for sale online are understood to have been seized and smuggled out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Uganda.

Since 2020 and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 100 great apes were seized in trafficking attempts in Africa.

Dr Stiles said collecting dung or hair samples from chimps to map their origin could pose a problem for investigators.

“If it’s a seizure, it would be easier, if the authorities would allow an investigator to collect samples,” he said.

“If it’s a chimp in a private zoo or someone’s pet, it would be a much bigger challenge.”

Updated: June 06, 2022, 7:03 AM