Giuseppe Di Giovanni
Poaching is one of the most common types of wildlife crime that occurs worldwide. Hunters poach wildlife mainly for monetary gain, although for some it is the thrill of the hunt or to prove their prowess as a hunter. Wildlife crime doesn’t solely involve hunting and killing animals but can also involve the trade in live animals and the trafficking of plants. Wildlife crime mostly goes undiscovered and unreported and as a result the scale of this type of crime is difficult to accurately determine. It is safe to say that with the value of some rare species and the impact on legal hunting and tourism, that wildlife crime is likely valued at several billion dollars. A particular fallow deer poaching case in Tasmania is what prompted this research.
European fallow deer are present in all six Australian states. The species was introduced into Tasmania in the 1830’s when six bucks and six does were imported. Despite hunting of fallow deer being legal in Australia, poaching is still a major problem and it must be monitored and managed for the benefit of managing the deer population of private landholders.
The recreational hunting of fallow deer leads to significant economic benefits for State and Federal Governments which justifies the need for monitoring and enforcement activities to protect the resource and ensure that the harvest of deer in sustainable.
A fallow deer poaching incident occurred in Tasmania in early 2014 and one suspect had a blood stain on them which prompted the question ‘Can the stain by linked with certainty to the deer remains?’ Unfortunately, at the time not enough was known about the specific DNA markers in fallow deer to provide the certainty required in a court of law. This gap in our information led to a project titled, ‘The Development of Microsatellite Markers for the Individualisation of Fallow Deer’, being proposed.
This project’s aim was to develop a highly specific genetic typing system for Australian fallow deer based on the analysis of DNA. It is expected that the development of testing will enable poached deer to be linked to the perpetrator.
To develop the test, blood samples were required from unrelated fallow deer. Sample kits containing an elute card, gloves, pipette, bag, record sheet and instructions were sent to ADA members. Sample kits were returned to Flinders University for analysis.
The university extracted DNA from the samples and sequenced them looking for what are commonly known as short tandem repeats or STRs. These are the basis on which human forensic science depends. Once potential targets were identified, they were further tested to ensure that they were indeed different between individuals and also to determine their sizes so that they could eventually be combined into a single test without overlapping.
The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) was then used to copy the DNA targets millions of times to allow their further characterisation. From this work the best markers were combined into a single reaction so that multiple points of interest could be investigated at once. It was determined that 13 markers could be combined in a single reaction that would provide information that would be suitable for linking forensic samples and will also hopefully be able to tell us a little more about the genetic structure of the fallow deer population in Tasmania.
The next step was to use the 13 marker sets to test individual fallow deer and determine whether or not they could identify specific animals and be useful in poaching investigations. Individual fallow deer will also be tested to create a database that can be used for statistical calculations. This work is currently underway.
During 2015 blood samples from fallow deer populations from other Australian states were collected to expand the database further. This will determine whether or not geographic isolation influences the markers and whether or not markers differ in each state. This could also assist in determining fallow deer origins.
The end product of this study will be a test that can be used for forensic investigations to help combat poaching and wildlife crime.
About the author:
Giuseppe Antonio Di Giovanni is a former student at Flinders University, South Australia where he completed his Honours Degree in Forensic Biology under the supervision of Dr. Shanan S. Tobe and Professor Adrian Linacre. His research project was titled, ‘The Development of Microsatellite Markers for the Individualisation of Fallow Deer’. The Australian Deer Association provided financial support for this research and assisted in co-ordinating the collection of blood.