Summary

The illegal wildlife trade is a global threat to biodiversity, affecting numerous endangered species in the Australasian region, and an important public health issue as the trade can facilitate the transmission of zoonotic diseases. Better tools are needed to understand the illegal wildlife market including where animals are captured and sold, and to map the trade routes. This project will construct the first ever genetic database of traded wildlife by merging cutting-edge forensic genomic and criminological tools. The genomic methods developed by the project will be low cost, directly applicable to in-situ testing scenarios, and facilitate pro-active countermeasures against the illegal wildlife trade (confiscation, policy, and law enforcement). The outreach plan includes audio-visual communication tools aimed at local people, the wider public, and decision makers, and training for law enforcement authorities.

Context

The biological diversity of our planet is being rapidly depleted due to habitat destruction, climate change, and illegal wildlife trade. The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most lucrative organised crime in the world, after arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, and worth an estimated 32 billion USD per annum. Wildlife trade, whether legal or illegal, is also responsible for the potential emergence and spread of many zoonotic diseases (e.g., SARS, Swine flu) or even pandemic (COVID-19) which stresses the importance of studying and regulating such illegal activities. Southeast Asia is both a major hotspot for biodiversity and an epicentre for illegal wildlife trade world-wide. Parrots (Psittaciformes) are particularly susceptible to this trade given their intelligence and attractiveness to humans as pets, and being by far the most traded. Our comprehensive evaluation of the global status of parrots revealed that one-third of the nearly 400 species are threatened by extinction, with higher aggregate extinction risk (IUCN Red List Index) than any other comparable bird group.

Over half of all Critically Endangered parrot species live in Australasia and the Pacific, where wildlife trade and habitat destruction are the major causes of their rarity. Indonesia was identified as the highest priority country for parrot conservation in the world, due to their parrot diversity, endemism and threats. In our review on the illegal parrot trade in Indonesia, we applied a criminological model and showed that species are disproportionally targeted by demand and opportunity-based factors. We also showed in a different study that the negative effects of wildlife trade are already measurable on the wild parrot populations in a biodiverse Indonesian island. In addition to the conservation issues caused, the high quantity of traded parrots can also entail possible transmissible diseases to humans (e.g., Avian flu, Psittacosis). Although some species are bred and sold by local breeding centres, strong concerns have been raised about the possible inclusion of wild-caught birds into these facilities. Currently, local authorities do not have an efficient tool to investigate the real provenance of the traded individuals, and to track the illegal trade in the region. In our comprehensive review on genetic studies on parrot conservation, we highlighted the use of next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques for studying the illegal trade, and this project will establish the first genomic database for identifying traded wildlife, with Indonesian parrots as model taxa.

Objectives

This project is developing cutting-edge, field-based genomic techniques for greater understanding of human-wildlife interactions and to help solve wildlife trade issues in a biodiversity hotspot. This research will achieve important, pro-active countermeasures with practical outcomes in the region and applicability world-wide. The project’s success will be ensured by its multi-disciplinary nature, drawing on genomics and criminology to study the illegal trade, and documentary filmmaking as a communication tool to disseminate knowledge.

Our specific research objectives are:

  1. To develop state-of-the-art genomic techniques to reliably identify populations of the three most traded parrot species in Indonesia as a model group, including diseases they might carry. Mapping genetic population structure will enable authorities to understand illegal trade sources and facilitate rewilding of confiscated wildlife to the appropriate locations.
  2. To construct a genetic database of the illegal wildlife trade for the target species. This database will include samples from the wild populations as reference, and confiscated samples from the trade to be assigned to a reference population. This database is scalable and will be applicable to other similar concerns of wildlife forensics, like the trade of songbirds, whale meat, shark fins or ivory.
  3. To design rapid in-situ assessment methods using Oxford Nanopore Technologies portable platforms to identify traded taxa and their provenance. A challenge for using genetic information for making ‘real time’ conservation decisions is that lack of access to laboratory facilities results in a time lag for providing useful information. With our validated protocols, authorities and collaborating NGOs will be able to collect and analyse data with low cost, at in-situ key locations such as wildlife markets and checkpoints.
  4. To build local research capacity and raise awareness through science communication, which can induce behavioural change in people. The study will increase research capacity in Australia and Indonesia by graduate student training and local engagement. Audio-visual materials will be produced about the research to inform poachers about the newest regulations, the wider public about the most urging issues in the parrot trade, and decision makers about the law-enforcement techniques provided by this study.

Structure

This project is building build a forensic genetic database to reveal the origins and routes of the illegal parrot trade in Indonesia as a model system for wildlife forensics. We are developing genomic techniques to address important issues in wildlife conservation in the region and to provide end-user solutions for their mitigation. This project has a further innovative component because it will be paired with professional audio-visual outreach strategies designed to disseminate information to where it can be most effectively used.

This project is funded by the Australian Research Council, under a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA project DE230100085), and hosted by the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University.

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