From Science to Action: Taking DNA Barcoding to Battle Against the Bushmeat

From Science to Action: Taking DNA Barcoding to Battle Against the Bushmeat Crisis
Sarah Burgess-Herbert, Iregi Mwenja, Vincent Opyene

“Speed Presentation” given 7 July 2010
24th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology
Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA
Consequences of the unsustainable and illegal commercial trade in wildlife species known as the bushmeat trade include biodiversity loss, impoverishment of rural communities, compromised ecosystem services, and increased incidents of zoonotic diseases. A recent assessment of wildlife laws and governance in East Africa revealed that successful prosecutions of illegal hunting are very rare, that a lack of forensic evidence in wildlife cases leads to their high failure rate, and that most conservation capacity building projects focus limited attention on the prosecution stage of law enforcement. Meanwhile, proof-of-concept testing in a genetics ‘field lab’ in Cameroon, and in labs in the United States, has shown that a tool known as DNA barcoding can identify to species unrecognizable samples of fresh, dried, and smoked bushmeat. Since the identification of animal products can provide crucial forensic evidence, DNA barcoding has the potential to transform the legal battleground in the prosecution of bushmeat cases. For this to happen in East Africa, we conclude that capacity building conservation projects need to focus more heavily on the prosecution of wildlife crimes, such as through the development of government-sanctioned forensic laboratory facilities with at least one central facility equipped to deal with DNA sequencing, and through technical and awareness training for lab technicians, law enforcement partners, wildlife managers, prosecutors, and magistrates.

A bushmeat poacher in Tsavo

A bushmeat poacher arrested with dik dik meat. In the absence of science, the court is usually unable to determine whether this is bushmeat or not especially if the defendant claims it is meat from domestic animals.

Is China Killing Africa’s wildlife?

Is China Killing Africa’s wildlife?

Is this the dark side of China’s presence in Africa?  Published 24 May 2010.

The once long and bumpy road to Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya is now a smooth riding joy thanks to the teams of Chinese workers tarring a fresh road through the wilderness.

But conservationists fear that there is a dark side to this local intervention. Reports suggest that Chinese workers are buying ivory tusks hacked from the heads of illegally hunted elephants in a banned trade that could decimate herds already threatened by the years-long drought in Kenya. Read more..

Who is a poacher? A new perspective

Pieter Kat on 29th April 2010 commented on Johan Knols post- When Poaching is The Only Way

The comment is slightly modified to suit Kenyan audience

If you are of European descent, it is likely that a distant ancestor of yours was a poacher. This might surprise you, but it is also important to realize that those of us alive today are only here because we are linked to a long line of people who did what they could to feed their families. For many hundreds of years in England for example, the remaining wildlife was the property of the aristocracy with big estates. Poor, and often starving people lived on the boundaries of such estates, and would occasionally sally forth to take a rabbit, a deer, or maybe a salmon from the river. Not ever a swan, as those all belonged to the King (now to the Queen – thanks to a statute dating from 1186 (reaffirmed by the Act of Swans of 1482 and the Wild Creatures and Forest Law Act of 1971). The estates would employ gamekeepers to keep your ancestors out, and if they were caught, the local Sheriff would put them in the cells.

People in Africa have always supplemented their diet with game. Now, in all countries, wildlife (except that on game ranches) belongs to the State, and people adding an impala to their pot are still called poachers. The gamekeepers have now grown into Wildlife Departments, and the aristocratic estates are now National Parks. The poor have remained the same.

Kenyans, with their usual sense of humour despite adverse conditions, have long called wildlife “Government cattle”. It is not unusual in Kenya to see cows sharing their grazing with zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest on ranches. The former are owned by individuals, and someone trying to feed a family better not select a cow – laws in place are strict and justice is swift. But a gazelle does not belong to your neighbours, instead to a fuzzy entity that sits somewhere far away in a big city that you have probably never been to and probably would not spend money to go to. So go for the gazelle, and if the government comes to inspect your pot you could say it was a goat.

We are all meant to believe that poaching is a big problem in Africa. But there is poaching and then there is poaching. On the one hand, there is large-scale commercial poaching for an overseas market. Rhino horns and elephant tusks can be immediately identified as forming a basis for this trade. We have all been informed by now that the gamekeepers and government leaders have been complicit in such activities. Then, there is poaching for the commercial market. We have all been informed by now that the bush meat trade is destroying wildlife populations at a great rate, but that such trade is often assisted by logging companies that provide the rainforest roads and the trucks to bring meat to market. Then there is poaching to sustain the stomachs of various rebel armies competing for territory. We have all been informed of the Lord’s Resistance Army previously in Uganda and now shifted a bit to the west – you think they rely on manna from heaven to keep their bellies full? And finally, there is poor Wanjiku, only wanting a dik dik for her pot every now and then, as her family is only used to eating meat infrequently.

So who are the really bad guys in terms of poaching? It seems clear the biggest poaching problems need to be addressed first in terms of making an impact. Wanjiku is way down the line, and does not even own a gun. Africa is a very big continent but in the still small rural communities, everyone knows what is going on. Everyone in the local communities in Europe knew that your great, great, great Grandfather was a bit of a poacher, and your family survived because that man was able to outwit the gamekeeper. Don’t focus on Wanjiku, but do focus anti-poaching on the fat cats, the companies, the armies. But Wanjiku is easier to catch isn’t she?

 Read More

Mwenja Speaks Out

Wanjiru Macharia, a marketing professional with a great interest in environmental conservation recently requested me to give an interview on my life, my career and my future career goals. I had worked with her four years ago at the East African Wildlife Society and she felt that by telling my inspirational story, many young people in Africa will be inspired to take my path or get more informed on the need to take personal action to protect our environment. The interview has been published in the internet by Baraza and other websites. Click here to read the interview in Baraza.

mwenja for blog1

Aids warning over bushmeat trade

Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 October, 2004, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK

A study of African hunters has shown that a virus similar to HIV has passed from apes to humans from bushmeat of the kind that is being sold illegally in the UK.

A leading scientist has told the File On 4 programme that the virus was probably passed on to tribesmen via body fluids when the animals were slaughtered and butchered.

Assistant Professor Nathan Wolfe, who tested more than 1,000 hunters for Johns Hopkins University, US, found a retrovirus from the same family as HIV in a number of them.

This is most likely the mechanism by which HIV emerged into the human population

Nathan Wolfe, Johns Hopkins University
“This is the area of the world where HIV came from, and this is most likely the mechanism by which HIV emerged into the human population,” he said.  Read more

The Making of an African Conservationist

Before joining the USFWS MENTOR Fellowship program to study bushmeat in February 2008, I was leading efforts in saving some of the rare and endangered primates in Kenya. This amateur video takes you back four years ago when we were undertaking research that led to the scientific breakthrough in the discovery of a rare primate population over 300 km away from the known geographic range of the species and across a huge physical barrier – The Great Rift Valley.

This year, I am conducting a special campaign aimed at inspiring young people in Africa to take action to protect the wildlife and the environment. This is how I have chosen to celebrate a decade of a successful career in conservation. This video is one of the activities I have lined up for my special campaign. Please join me in this very important campaign by helping to spread the word and  sending donations through this blog to enable me  reach out more people through education outreach activities in schools and colleges in Kenya and Uganda later in the year.

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Iregi Mwenja

Iregi Mwenja an Alumnus of the USFWS MENTOR Fellowship on bushmeat and is currently working on bushmeat solutions in East Africa

Over-consumption not overpopulation will destroy the planet?!

Prospect Magazine

The overpopulation myth

Fred Pearce   8th March 2010  —  Issue 168

The idea that growing human numbers will destroy the planet is nonsense. But over-consumption will

Many of today’s most-respected thinkers, from Stephen Hawking to David Attenborough, argue that our efforts to fight climate change and other environmental perils will all fail unless we “do something” about population growth. In the Universe in a Nutshell, Hawking declares that, “in the last 200 years, population growth has become exponential… The world population doubles every forty years.”

But this is nonsense. For a start, there is no exponential growth. In fact, population growth is slowing. Read more

Dr Richard Leakey Statement on Bushmeat in Kenya

Dr Paula Kahumbu, CEO of reads Dr Richard Leakey’s statement during Kenya’s first bushmeat symposium in Nairobi on 20 May 2009.

Follow this link on Youtube to listen to the statement:

Bushmeat education workshop ends in Tsavo

On 30th January, 2010 a training workshop organized for environmental educators in Tsavo ecosystem successfully concluded business after four days of an enriching training on bushmeat education, the first of its kind in East Africa. Seven educators were trained on the new methods in bushmeat education by a team of five facilitators from NMK, AFEW Giraffe center and ANAW. The environmental educators were drawn from KWS Tsavo West NP, Chyulu NP, KWS Taveta, Amara Conservation and Wildlife clubs.

Bushmeat education workshop participant Tsavo

Bushmeat education workshop participant Tsavo

To show how important this training was, two participants met their own cost of travel, food and accommodation. The workshop also benefited from contribution from a leading Bushmeat expert in the US who participated through Skype.

Jacob of Amara Conservation receiving 'Mizoga' film donated by Born free foundation

Jacob of Amara Conservation receiving 'Mizoga' film donated by Born free foundation

As part of the training, the educators and the facilitators conducted outreach in Kathekani secondary school and Nthunguni market that borders the Tsavo East National Park. The joint initiative left a huge impact in the school and the community.

Looking back at the enthusiasm and commitment demonstrated by the facilitators and educators, I am now convinced that this training heralds a new beginning in the way bushmeat education is conducted in the Tsavo ecosystem. Apart from gaining knowledge and learning new skills, it was notable that new partnerships were formed and pledges to work together particularly on education outreach was made. This was a great outcome of the workshop and I am looking forward to see this in action.

I am very grateful to KWS TWNP management for provision of the training facility and allowing all participants to entry into the park for free during the entire training duration. Thanks to Education Warden Ms Malenya for helping with logistics and organizing an excellent outreach in Kathekani and Nthunguni.

Iregi Mwenja is a USFWS MENTOR Fellowship alumnus and a leading bushmeat expert in East Africa. This capacity building project is funded by USFWS Wildlife Without Borders Africa program

Bushmeat education workshop begins in Tsavo

Tomorrow Wednesday 27th 2010, I and a team of highly experienced facilitators from Kenya and the USA will be conducting an educators’ training workshop in Tsavo West National Park.  The workshop which is funded by the USFWS Wildlife Without Borders Africa Program aims at training a selected group of environmental educators working in the western part of the Tsavo ecosystem. The officers are coming from Tsavo West National Park, Chyulu National Park, Taveta ex-poacher project and a Wildlife Clubs patron.

However, the demand for bushmeat education in the region, which is notorious for bushmeat poaching was far much higher than we could meet and we have received requests from Education Officers working in the area for inclusion in the training! And to prove how serious they are, the Officers accepted to participate in the training without getting any financial support from our side.

This workshop is the first of its kind to specifically focus on building the capacity of educators in bushmeat education. By training and equipping the educators on the ground with materials on bushmeat education we are hoping that the knowledge, skills and materials that we have will be used in Tsavo ecosystem for a long time rather than going to the ground ourselves to implement a one off education project that may not be sustainable.

The specific objectives of training these officers are;

1.      To increase their knowledge on the bushmeat crisis

2.      To build their skills on bushmeat education

3.      To provide them with relevant education materials for their education work.

4.      To enhance linkages and collaboration in education in the region

5.      To develop new bushmeat education materials

6.      To build local and international partnership in education

Some of the education materials we are using in this training have been donated by Africa Environmental Film Foundation, Born free Foundation, INCEF, Project WILD and RARE. KWS Tsavo West National Park is providing the training facility and logistical support for the training and outreach. We are also getting technical support from AFEW Giraffe Center, Amara Conservation and ANAW. Big thanks to Melinda, Heather and Natalie for their technical support form the USA.