Friday, July 26, 2013

Dragons in our midst

We provide a phylogenetic and population genetic evaluation of the illegal pet and bush meat trade of monitor lizards in the Philippines. We use a molecular dataset assembled from vouchered samples with known localities throughout the country, as a reference for statistical phylogenetic, population genetic, and DNA Barcoding analyses of genetic material obtained during a three year survey of the Manila pet trade. Our results provide the first genetic evaluation of a major Southeast Asian city’s illegal trade in monitors and allow us to establish several important conclusions regarding actual, versus reported, origins of Manila’s black market Varanus. Monitor lizards are clearly transported throughout the archipelago for trade; we identified genotypes from areas surrounding Manila, the distinct Bicol faunal subregion of Luzon, Mindanao Island, the Visayan islands, islands of the Romblon Province, the Babuyan islands, and Mindoro Island. Numerous species are involved, including multiple endemic Philippine taxa, the threatened Gray’s monitor (Varanus olivaceus), and the presumably non-Philippine rough-neck monitor (Varanus rudicollis). Our results suggest that traders frequently and deliberately misrepresent the provenance of traded animals, in an apparent effort to increase their perceived market value.

This is the abstract of a study published this year in Biological Conservation. This study is just a snapshot of the conservation crisis of Southeast Asian wildlife caused by illegal trade. An increasing number of vertebrates are removed from their natural habitats, harvested for both legal and illegal trade in skins, bush meat, exotic pets, good luck charms, and traditional medicines. The tasks of monitoring the trade as well as illegal shipments have become very difficult. An arms race between illegal dealers and wildlife law enforcement officials is on. Unfortunately the current winners of this race are the smugglers. But there is hope:

Trade forensics has come to represent an increasingly diverse and powerful suite of technological, methodological, and analytical tools and resources for identifying trade species and, hopefully, pinpointing their origins. Although accurate identification of trade animals is accompanied by numerous logistic and biosecurity challenges, determining origins of confiscated animals may help identify trade routes and populations at risk from heavy exploitation pressures. Importantly, our ability to identify actual geographic origins of trade animals with molecular techniques (and reference databases of densely sampled wild-caught animals from known localities) may eventually prove to be a strong deterrent if illegal traders become aware of these new, sophisticated forensic and law enforcement tools.

It is good to see that studies like this one use a suite of methods (phylogenetic, population genetic network, and DNA Barcoding) to identify the provenance of trade animals, and compare those information to those reported by traders and dealers. Although the researchers focused only on one commercial hub of the monitor lizard trade, the pet markets in and around metro Manila, Philippines, they could show that the combined approach allowed assignment of samples to species but also to particular islands or subregions on larger islands. So, indeed good news that again proof the value of modern genetic methods but:

Numerous additional, unrelated taxa should now be similarly studied; the Manila pet trade regularly deals in a wide variety of amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and marine fish. Additionally, phyloforensic monitoring of the illegal Philippine pet trade should focus on the numerous well-developed trade centers we are aware of on Palawan (Puerto Princesa City), Cebu (Cebu City), and Mindanao (Davao City) islands, as well as many smaller cities on Luzon Island (personal observations). Many of these clearly are the conduits through which animals enter the Philippines from other countries, as well as sources for illegal smuggling of animals to regions outside of the Philippines. Finally, in many rural provinces in the Philippines, thriving local bush meat markets deal in wild caught forest species. We anticipate that most of these will be found to deal in species from areas in close proximity to these smaller local markets, but this speculation remains to be tested. In addition to the necessity of widespread geographic and taxonomic sampling to combat illegal trade in the Philippines, such efforts should be extended to countries where illegal trade in animals is of similar concern. Much of Southeast Asia, central Africa, Australia, and northern South America have been plagued by circumstances similar to those found in the Philippines. These regions are home to species which are highly sought after in the pet, traditional medicine, and skin trades, and should be targeted for widespread sampling of natural populations in order to asses those populations most at risk and severely threatened by illegal exploitation.

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