Wildlife forensic science in the field: Using genetics to protect Malaysia’s tigers

Theme: Pan-disciplinary
Primary Supervisor:

Mark Thomas

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Secondary Supervisor:

Georgina Meakin Meakin

Security and Crime Science, UCL

Project Description:

Malaysia is home to one of the last remaining Sunda tiger subspecies (Panthera tigris jacksoni), with direct killing from poaching and illegal hunting of prey the biggest threats to this population. The Thailand-Malaysia border is recognised as a trafficking hotspot for tiger skins and body parts, with the number of seizures increasing over the past 10 years. Body parts equivalent to ~94 tigers were seized between 2000 and 2013, and officials destroyed more than 2,241 poacher’s traps in the same period.
Much of the illegal trade is driven by international demand, and lack of evidence and/or delays in testing mean that conviction rates are very low. A consortium of NGOs (non-government organisations), wildlife forensic scientists and government officials has recently been created to tackle the problem of illegal traps being set in protected areas for tigers and their prey species. One of the main challenges the consortium faces is how to link poachers to individual snares and to wildlife seizures.
Genetic methods have infrequently been used in this context, but have the potential to be extremely effective. The main objectives of this PhD study are therefore to develop an effective method for sampling DNA from wildlife traps and to devise a reliable system for identifying wildlife species and human suspects from snare samples. Further objectives include determining how tropical climate conditions affect DNA recovery rates and how best to adapt laboratory techniques for field use, with potential for the successful candidate to be involved in overseeing field trials.

Policy Impact of Research:

This PhD project will complement the consortium’s ongoing work by providing the means to distinguish species being targeted by illegal traps, and identify suspects potentially responsible for tiger poaching events. Results will be used to train wildlife officials in sampling and analysing snares.

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