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Center for Conservation Biology

USAID Tech Challenge

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Pangolins are currently one of the most, if not the most, poached mammal in the world. While these scaly anteaters are hard to find in the wild due to their solitary and elusive nature, many tonnes of pangolin meat and scales have been seized around the world. The IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group estimates that more than a million pangolins have been harvested from the wild in the past decade.

With eight species in 48 countries across Asia and Africa, it is crucial to find out where the bulk of poaching is happening. The Center for Conservation Biology is working on a solution to this problem by using genetic techniques and the help of their Conservation Canines.
Our Center was selected as one of the 16 Prize Winners working to combat illegal wildlife trade by the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge. The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund is also supporting this project.

Our goals are to pinpoint the source of pangolin seizures, identifying poaching hotspots that allow law enforcement to be focused on the most heavily poached populations. We have already demonstrated the power of this method with large seizures of ivory. We are now poised to adapt the method for pangolins – helping to stop the poaching before pangolins disappear from the wild.

The first step of adapting the method for pangolin trafficking is to develop a single set of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that is able to distinguish between populations of each of the eight pangolin species. After assuring these SNPs can be acquired from pangolin feces, we will then build a genetic reference map for each species from fecal samples located by our Center’s Conservation Canines. These same SNPs will be acquired from pangolin seizures, allowing us to identify geographic origin of pangolin seizures by statistically fitting their SNPs to those in our genetic reference map.

We are working with many partners around the world including the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Global Health Team/PREDICT and Natural History Museum, London.