Kenyans use barcodes to gather evidence to combat trade in illegal bushmeat

DNA extraction in a lab. DNA technology is being used to create barcodes to facilitate the positive identification of wild meat.Photo Mwenja

NAIROBI, Kenya (14 June, 2011)_For generations the people of East Africa lived among wild animals but did not depend on them for food or livelihood; they either raised livestock or traded to obtain it. Unlike the peoples of the forests to the west whose major source of protein is wild animals, they lived mainly on the savannah, leaving the forests to the animals.

But a century—and millions more people later—in Kenya, one of the three East African nations—meat from wild animals, whose ranks were already thinned through sport hunting, poaching and inefficient game ranching, are being hunted and sold—illegally—for food.

Kenya, which banned sport hunting in 1977, relies heavily on tourism to game parks as a major source of foreign exchange earnings. But small-scale farmers resent the game that often eats their crops but which they cannot eat. And as population pressure grows, and the cost of living rises, illegal bushmeat becomes increasingly attractive to hunters, rural and urban dwellers—and foreign-run cartels that ship it out of the country.

The Kenya Wildlife Service is already stretched thin protecting the elephants and big cats that draw the tourists. But even when they do manage to apprehend hunters and dealers in bushmeat, it is nearly impossible to obtain a conviction without irrefutable evidence.

“KWS has been getting increasingly frustrated. It’s just their word against the suspects who often claim they were only selling goat meat,” Iregi Mwenja, Kenya country director of the Born Free Foundation said. He spoke on the sidelines of a meeting convened by the bushmeat working groups of the CBD and CITES with CIFOR participation to come up with recommendations on how to protect the sources of bushmeat and make hunting in certain areas sustainable.

But now Mwenja says DNA technology is being used to create barcodes from genetic material to facilitate the positive identification of wild meat—and ivory—using a data base made of samples of meat, hair or bone collected from a wide variety of animals in the region.

“The direct cause of wildlife decline is illegal hunting due to increasing population,” he said. “For a poor person who has a lot of resentment against wildlife, poaching is a good way to make money.”

Born Free and KWS recently carried out a study in butcher shops along a 200-kilometer stretch of Kenya’s main highway that runs from Nairobi to the Indian Ocean, and through the use of the barcodes they found that between 5 and 8 per cent of the meat on sale was   bush meat.

A suspected bushmeat sample in the lab awaiting DNA testing. Photo Sarah Burgess-Herbert

The International Barcode of Life project and the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada are sponsoring the data banks, and Kenya is supplying samples from its wildlife. Mwenja said the identification is so precise that it is possible to determine from which area and herd the animals came.

But a major obstacle remains. The Kenyan courts will only accept forensic evidence vetted by the country’s sole government-registered laboratory, and the Government Chemist does not have a lab that can prepare and handle DNA samples.

For now KWS takes its samples to a private lab in Nairobi for preparation and shipment abroad to the labs that are working on the barcodes. KWS has plans to set up its own lab, but so far there is nothing concrete.

“We have a very weak wildlife law. The fines are low, and suspects often get off with a slap on the wrist,” Mwenja said. “And the worst of it is that when the suspects leave the court, they often ask the KWS driver for a lift back home.”