Gene police join the war on tiger poaching

How would you know where a tiger claw came from? Scientists are compiling a DNA database of tigers from all over India. If there’s a match, you know where the claw came from.

November 02, 2015 03:11 pm | Updated 03:11 pm IST - HYDERABAD:

A database of genetic profiles of tigers from across India is not only aiding in the capture of poachers but also in identifying maneaters.

The database being set up at LaCONES (Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species), which is a collaboration between CSIR and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

So far, the laboratory has compiled the genetic profiles of tigers from central India, the Western Ghats and the Northeast. “However, we don’t have major representation from North India, particularly Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, as the process involves going to the protected area, collecting samples and preparing the genotype,” said Anuradha Reddy, a scientist at LaCONES.

The database is enabling scientists to assign with a fair degree of accuracy the region from where a big cat comes. “We have a uniform database and we use the same set of markers for all analyses. Then we can do the assignment easily,” she said.

The database is helping to identify maneaters as well. For instance, after seven or eight human deaths were reported in buffer zone of a tiger reserve in Chandrapur in Maharashtra in in 2013-14, samples were sent to LaCONES and scientists there were able to establish that the animal was a tigress. “However, as the DNA quality of the sample received was bad, we could not say for sure whether it was one animal that was responsible for all the attacks. But we are certain it was a tigress,” Dr Reddy said.

With greater awareness of the utility of DNA fingerprinting technique, forest officials from Maharashtra, Karnataka and other states have been referring samples in cases of poaching and human-animal conflicts to LaCONES. The lab receives, on an average three cases (10 samples) involving tigers every month. It has analysed around 250-300 samples since 2012. Dr. Anuradha Reddy is being assisted by another researcher S Harika in building the data base and the analysis.

In one instance, DNA samples of bone, claws and whiskers confiscated from poachers helped foresters and the police in busting a major poaching racket in Maharashtra.

In another case, DNA analysis of samples established that at least four tigers were killed by poachers in Melghat in Maharashtra last year as against the latter’s claim of only one tiger. “The DNA of tigers collected from the poachers’ nails matched with those of the dead animals,” she added.

Pointing out that tiger bones were in great demand in the international market, she said the database would help in tracing the place from where animal parts originate.

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