'Fur fingerprint' plan to curb illegal traders

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The Independent Online

Scientists have developed a "fur fingerprinting" system to help stop illegal traders in endangered species such as ocelots, tigers and fur seals.

Scientists have developed a "fur fingerprinting" system to help stop illegal traders in endangered species such as ocelots, tigers and fur seals.

At present, Customs officers trying to tell the difference between legal and illegal furs have to rely on an expert being present or laboratory tests, which take at least a day.

The new method, devised in Germany, works by analysing amino acids unique to each species, and can tell the difference within two hours.

Illegal trade in fur from endangered species is a multimillion-dollar business worldwide, although exact figures are impossible to obtain. Among the animals affected are the Tibetan antelope, whose wool is used to make shahtoosh shawls, and tigers, which are often worth more dead than alive.

"The vast majority of fur identification by Customs now is by visual identification," said Stuart Chapman, head of the species programme at the conservation group WWF-UK. "It's usually done just by stripes or spots."

But he said it was increasingly important to make correct identifications quickly, and to identify which country a fur had come from, which would now be possible.

The test, in which protein fragments from strands of hair treated with a digestive enzyme are chemically analysed, was developed by Saarland University, Germany.

Under the current system, if Customs officers believe that a fur sample comes from an endangered species they have to call in a wildlife specialist who is able to identify it by sight, which is a slow and costly process.

The developer of the new test, Klaus Hollemeyer, hopes that his technique can be automated and a database of different animals' fur proteins built up, so that the method can be used to monitor bulk shipments of freight.

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