To combat poaching, Florida officials use wildlife forensics

May 22, 2000

State game officials are bagging poachers who might once have escaped their reach, thanks to DNA analysis performed at a University of Florida laboratory.

More commonly used to catch murderers and rapists, the lab's forensic DNA techniques have proved so successful in nabbing deer poachers that officials have recently turned to it for help in cases involving wild turkeys, turtles, alligators and other hunted species in Florida. Since undertaking the work about three years ago, the lab has helped crack about 30 poaching cases statewide, a number they say will grow steadily as the lab branches out into more and more species and types of cases.

"I wish I had it 20 years ago," said Capt. Barry Cook of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office in Gainesville. "The jails would be a lot fuller."

DNA analysis to find poachers is just one role of the Biotechnologies for Ecological, Evolutionary and Conservation Sciences Genetics Analysis Laboratory, part of UF's Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research. The lab's main function is to provide genetics expertise to biologists in the field.

But the lab became involved in poaching cases after game officials enlisted it in 1998 to determine if meat came from Florida's native white-tailed deer or another species.

Ginger Clark, a UF senior biological scientist at the lab, developed a technique that could not only determine the species of deer based on tissue samples or blood, but also the deer's gender. The technique can identify any hoofed species, from cows to horses to antelopes, from most countries in the world. The work quickly became useful in poaching cases.

Unlike the lengthy buck season, doe season on Florida's public lands lasts only two days. In several instances, game officers have sent the lab samples of fresh venison confiscated from hunters on suspicion it came from does killed out of season. Officers also have given the lab clothing stained with blood they suspected was from illegally killed does.

The lab usually has confirmed the officer's suspicions, resulting in successful prosecutions of the poachers, although the evidence isn't always in the officers' favor.

"There have been times that we have said, 'This is male white tail, so for this sample you don't have a case,'" said Daniel Brazeau, lab director. "So it cuts both ways."

Using techniques similar to the deer technique, the lab has increased its scope recently. Newer cases include at least one that involved suspected poaching of wild turkey hens (only gobblers can be hunted in Florida.) Clark determined the meat came from female turkeys, strengthening the case against the suspected poacher. Other cases have involved alligator snapping turtle meat and Florida black bear meat. In yet another example, a Florida seafood dealer, suspicious that a large purchase of white fish fillets contained an illegal fish species, approached the researchers for help. They confirmed some fillets were indeed illegal.

The lab also has determined that eggs being sold as freshwater turtle eggs in fact came from endangered sea turtles. Because sea turtles return to beaches where they hatched, the researchers can even tell where eggs were collected, Brazeau said. "This technology has a lot of power, which is why human DNA forensics is so significant," he said.

The DNA forensics process involves a molecular biology technique called PCR, or Polymerase chain reaction. The technique allows researchers to make millions of copies of DNA from a tiny sample -- a pencil eraser-sized piece of flesh or drop of blood usually is enough -- then sequence the DNA to establish its precise genetic code. This code then can be compared against samples from known animal species to confirm or rule out a match. The samples are available from gene sequence banks on the Internet and other sources. Much of the sea turtle gene sequences, for example, were collected by UF zoology researchers.

All of the lab's 30 cases have been resolved in settlements in favor of the prosecution, with none going to trial, Clark said. Several of those accused of poaching have confessed on when confronted with the DNA evidence, Cook said. "This type of evidence is just that cut and dried," Cook said, adding that, as a result of the UF lab's work, all game officers in the state are now equipped with sampling kits to obtain DNA evidence during investigations.
-end-
Sources: Ginger Clark, 352-392-3948, ginger@biotech.ufl.edu
Daniel Brazeau, 352-392-3948, dbrazeau@ufl.edu

Color or black & white photo available with this story.
For information, please call News & Public Affairs photography at 352-392-9092.

University of Florida

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