DNA tests help trap illegal wildlife traders

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The Independent Online
Detectives tracking wildlife criminals are using DNA genetic fingerprinting to catch their prey.

Investigators already use DNA evidence to catch bird and egg thieves. They want to extend its use to trap badger-baiters and importers of products from endangered species such as tigers and elephants.

Assistant Chief Constable Mick Brewer, of Warwickshire Constabulary, and the wildlife adviser for Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), said: "We are also interested in the possibility of obtaining DNA from animal bones.

"For example tiger bones are used in some medicines, but the animal is internationally protected and all trade is banned. If we recover a bag of bones that we believe come from a tiger, DNA may be one way of obtaining a conviction."

He added that in the future animal blood and hair samples found on badger- baiters may also be used as evidence.

The country's first "DNA police kit" for wildlife law enforcers should be available in the next few months. It has been developed by The Wildlife Law Enforcement Steering Group, which is jointly chaired by the Department of the Environment and ACPO. The groupwants to encourage better use of DNA sampling. The kit will include instructions and equipment for storing samples as forensic evidence.

Although DNA testing - matching unique genetic elements found in every cell - is more often used to track murderers and rapists, it is particularly useful for convicting thieves who steal rare birds' eggs or chicks.

The "bird collectors" pretend the stolen birds have been bred in captivity and can therefore be legally sold, often for hundreds of pounds. But by comparing DNA in blood samples taken from the chick and its alleged parent, the police may be able to prove a crime.

Last year a peregrine falcon breeder who bought stolen wild eggs and hatched them using his licensed birds was convicted in this way.

Peter Gurr, 54, sold the offspring of the birds, a protected species, to other breeders for up to pounds 550 each, claiming he had legally bred them in captivity. But detectives used DNA testing to prove he bred from stolen eggs. He was jailed for four months.

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