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Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 11:56 UK

'Barcodes' tackle bush meat trade

By Jon Stewart
BBC science reporter

Wheelbarrows of bushmeat in the Congo (credit: Sarah Elkan)
Bush meat is a key part of the diet for many in central Africa

Researchers have developed a new tool in the fight against the illegal hunting and trading of wild animals.

"We can use a small sequence of DNA as a species identifier in the same way as a barcode," says George Amato of the American Museum of Natural History.

The technique can accurately identify an animal species, even once it has processed and turned into meat or other products.

The illegal trade in bush meat has grown dramatically over recent years.

Hunting for income or subsistence is traditional in Asia, South and Central America and West and Central Africa.

There is also increasing international demand for meat and other products from "exotic" wild animals.

The trade is difficult to monitor but estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year.

Knowing the species can help trace where an animal is from, and therefore help determine whether the hunting and killing was illegal.

Along with traditional techniques like education, it could help control the trade.

Health concerns

"All sorts of species are hunted, from snails up to elephants," says Noelle Kumpell from the Zoological Society of London.

Leather products on display in a craft market in Brazzaville, Congo (credit Mitchell Eaton)
Scientists hope to use the technique to identify goods sold in markets

She manages conservation programmes which include the monitoring of the bush meat trade in west and central Africa.

"Conservationists are particularly worried about the impact on the more vulnerable species, which are the larger, more slowly reproducing species such as great apes, or elephants."

As well as causing problems for conservation there are health concerns over eating species like apes which are closely related to us, as there is a risk of transmitting diseases.

To develop the DNA barcode, scientists had to find a region of DNA that is varied enough to distinguish between species, and resilient enough that it can be found in leather, bone, or dried meat.

Database

They are now building a database of the wild species so that products can be checked and compared.

"The whole point of this new development was to make a useful new tool for monitoring the trade at point of origin, whether it's in the field, in markets, at airports, and all along the chain of where these wildlife products might travel," Mr Amato told BBC Science in Action.

"The notion is that we'll be able to, very shortly, identify the barcode from the product locally, which could be right in a market. Then we will access the database over the internet, and get that information back, at point of origin."


You can hear more on the development of DNA barcodes on Science in Action on the BBC World Service.



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