Human population growth and consumption are placing ever-increasing demands on the environment. Accurate measures of where illegal wildlife trade is most concentrated are also needed. The Center for Conservation Biology’s mission is to develop and apply such noninvasive field, lab and analytical methods to address pressing conservation problems worldwide.
We develop and apply comprehensive tools to cost-effectively gather vast amounts of genetic, physiological and ecological data over very large landscapes, along with creative ways of integrating and analyzing this information. These monitoring programs focus on a wide variety of species and frequently take advantage of our detection dog program, Conservation Canines.
Dogs locate scat (feces) of multiple target species over large remote areas and from considerable distances, trumping more technical tracking methods. We extract DNA, a variety of hormones, toxins and diet measures from these samples and use this information to quantify changes in the health, abundance and distribution of species threatened by one or more human disturbances. The data we generate indicate the causes of population decline, the magnitude of the problem, and what mitigation strategies are likely to be most effective.
We apply the same approach to DNA-based, wildlife forensics on a continent-wide scale. The burgeoning illegal wildlife trade is destroying biodiversity at rates that are now rivaling those of habitat loss. Our DNA-based forensics tools are helping wildlife authorities combat the rampant illegal elephant ivory trade across Africa. This work is a collaborative effort between our center, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, the CITES Secretariat, and the World Customs Organization. Wildlife authorities in many individual countries are also key players in this collaboration.
By pinpointing poaching hot spots, authorities are better able to direct law enforcement efforts; we are able to identify strategies used by organized crime syndicates driving this illegal trade; and governments are forced to take responsibility for the magnitude of the problem in their country. Our forensic techniques are readily applicable to other endangered species and we are collaborating with other scientists to develop similar tools for other species such as tigers.
Research and development, including careful validation experiments, are essential to our mission of providing the conservation community with cost and time effective monitoring tools. Our combined field and laboratory techniques enable us to non-invasively acquire essential biological information from numerous individuals over large geographic areas. We continually expand our measures to acquire the most comprehensive estimates of wildlife population health, as well as the most accurate determinations of where major wildlife poaching events are most concentrated.
Most of our studies rely on animal scat because it is readily accessible in nature and it contains an enormous amount of information. However, sample degradation in a variable environment necessitates meticulous validation of these measures. Validation confirms the biological significance of the products being measured in scat, how these products change with time on the ground, and how these processes vary across species and environmental conditions. Validation also indicates how best to preserve samples in the field for subsequent analyses, as well as how to optimize extractions of the necessary products from the sample. All of these experiments are necessary to assure that results can withstand the many scientific and legal challenges that stem from the political and economic implications of conservation work.
Validation studies are time and cost intensive due to the need for numerous controls, multiple groups, and large sample sizes. Our Center has devoted considerable resources to such studies. We intend to continue these development and validation efforts, as we strive to expand and improve upon available monitoring tools.
Outreach & capacity building
The Center capitalizes on the excitement surrounding its innovative and applied research to foster public awareness of the challenges facing wildlife, as well as to help build capacity for conservation in developing countries.