By Jacques du Toit

from GeneWatch 26-5
Nov-Dec 2013

Lion paw bones. Image provided by the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa.

"As fast as one thing evolves, another evolves to keep up with it..." This quotation aptly describes the "cat and mouse" relationship between environmental law enforcement officials and criminals whose activities threaten the survival of so many endangered species. As law enforcement (driven by the need to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations) improves its networks, strategies and technology to effectively tackle contraventions of environmental laws, so too does the criminal element adapt to changing circumstances, allowing them to pursue their objective of personal enrichment.

In South Africa, one of the evolutionary steps that has the potential to swing the pendulum in favor of environmental law enforcement (represented by the Environmental Management Inspectorate) is the application of DNA barcoding in the environmental criminal investigative and forensic field. By no means a new science within the academic world, the application of DNA barcoding is set to become a "a first step on the moon" moment for Environmental Management Inspectors hungrily awaiting its conversion into a practical law enforcement tool that will allow them to extend their reach to criminals previously beyond the scope of identification.

The use of DNA analysis has successfully been used in the identification of species pursuant to a criminal investigation. However, the scope of its application has been very narrow, due to the significant cost and time implications to undertake this analysis; as well as the limited number of species for which these tests could produce effective results.

The ability to quickly, consistently and accurately identify suspicious environmental commodities has always been a stumbling block for Environmental Management Inspectors, preventing them from entering the next critical phase of criminal investigations. The DNA Barcoding Project has the ability to provide the green light for these law enforcement officials to proceed.

Examples of its application to environmental contraband include:

  • Cycads that have been stripped of their leaves and roots being smuggled from the wild to plush suburban homes;
  • Endangered plants that are either ground into a powder or from which oils are extracted;
  • Look-alike species that are smuggled under the protection of a permit;
  • Lion bones that have been cooked and cleaned.

It is hoped that the coming together of the scientific, academic and law enforcement disciplines in the DNA Barcoding Project will keep our Environmental Management Inspectors one step ahead of offenders - and the criminals on their toes.


Jacques du Toit is Deputy-Director of EMI Capacity Development at South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs.

Image provided by the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa.

Search: GeneWatch
The Gene Myths series features incisive, succinct articles by leading scientists disputing the exaggerations and misrepresentations of the power of genes.
View Project
The use of forensic DNA databases by law enforcement around the globe is expanding at a rate that should be of great concern to civil libertarians.
View Project