UW News

September 19, 2016

Award for genetic tracking to rein in pangolin poaching

UW News

A pangolin on the grass.

A Sunda pangolin in Indonesia.Yayasan IAR Indonesia

A team of conservationists at the University of Washington is among the Grand Prize Winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, an initiative from the U.S. Agency for International Development — USAID — in partnership with the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution and TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring organization.

The UW team — based at the Center for Conservation Biology and led by biology professor Sam Wasser and graduate student Hyeon Jeong Kim — received the award for its proposal to develop genetic tracking tools to identify poaching hotspots for pangolins, one of the most trafficked group of mammals in the world.

USAID sought submissions for the challenge on Earth Day 2015 as part of an endeavor to foster innovative technological approaches to combat wildlife poaching. As one of four winning teams from over 300 submissions, the Center for Conservation Biology will receive a prize of $240,000.

Pangolin in a cage.

A Sunda pangolin in Indonesia.Yayasan IAR Indonesia

Pangolins are small, solitary and largely nocturnal mammals known for their distinctive, armadillo-like appearance. Four species are native to sub-Saharan Africa, with another four spread across south and southeast Asia. Pangolins curl their bodies into a tight ball when threatened, relying on scaled armor made from keratin — the same fibrous protein in our fingernails — for protection.

Those scales make pangolins meaty targets for poachers. Traditional medicines claim that pangolin scales harbor curative properties for a variety of ailments — long making the creatures prized in parts of Asia. The recent uptick in wealth in Asia has only driven up the demand for pangolin flesh and armor. Over a million pangolins have been captured illegally over the past decade. Conservation groups classify all eight pangolin species as threatened, endangered or critically endangered.

Wasser’s team proposed to map the genetic diversity of the four Asian pangolin species across their native ranges. Conservationists and law enforcement officials could then compare DNA samples from poached pangolins to this genetic reference map and determine where the poached creatures were captured and funneled into the black market.

For their reference map, Wasser and his team must obtain DNA samples from pangolins in the wild. They will use dogs specially trained to sniff out pangolin feces to find pangolin defecation sites so conservationists can extract DNA from these leftovers. Dogs would be trained through the UW’s Conservation Canines program.

For the genetic reference map, they will also use with DNA extracted from tissue samples of pangolin museum specimens that were obtained from known locations. The UW group will identify stretches of DNA that can be used to differentiate the pangolin species — as well as populations within each species — to give conservationists the most detailed information possible when determining pangolin poaching hotspots. As Wasser and his team have shown with elephants, this approach can help resource-strapped enforcement groups know where to be on the lookout for poachers and — hopefully — help stave off oblivion for the pangolin.

Project partners include the Smithsonian Institution and the Natural History Museum in London. They receive funding from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.


For more information, contact Kim at kimh11@uw.edu and Wasser at wassers@uw.edu.