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DNA enters the fight against illegal hunting of primates

14 Awst 2013

A DNA method able of identifying exact species of primate ‘bushmeat’ that has been cooked for sale has been developed in a bid to cut illegal trading and better identify and protect those species most at risk.

A team of research scientists from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, examining the bushmeat trade in urban markets in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, have used the tool to accurately identify species being traded.

"There is a real difficulty in identifying the exact species being traded in bushmeat markets. We have relied on crude measures of identification, using on the vendor’s identification and our best guess," according to Dr Tânia Minhós, who did the work as part of her PhD studies at Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences.

"Both are often wrong because most bushmeat arrives at markets skinned and smoked, so we are confronted with meat that could be anything," she adds.

The lack of a reliable diagnostic tool has hampered previous efforts to examine threat from illegal hunting on the country’s colobus monkeys, baboons and chimpanzees.

By collecting tissue samples from the cooked meat, the team were for the first time able to identify the exact primate traded using ‘DNA barcoding’ – resulting in some interesting and unexpected results. DNA was extracted from the meat samples, and the ‘barcoding’ –sequencing of species-specific DNA - was then carried out in the School of Biosciences by undergraduate project student Emily Wallace.

Dr Maria Ferreira da Silva, a co-author of this research that also completed her PhD at Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences adds: "Our study revealed that six out of the ten primate species in Guinea Bissau are traded for bushmeat consumption.

"However, having access to this new tool helped us confirm the most traded primate species was the green monkey – a species that neither the vendors nor ourselves had previously suspected was being traded.

"Without this study it was clear that the most hunted primate species would have been completely ignored and this would result in inadequate allocation of conservation efforts to protect them," she adds.

The researchers hope that the tool can now be used by government agencies worldwide responsible for controlling illegal bushmeat trade such as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

In 2010 it was shown that each year 270 tonnes of illegal bushmeat reaches Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport alone.

Professor Mike Bruford from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences who oversaw the research added: "This is the first study that has used molecular methods to correct the frequencies of the market trade for each species.

"What’s most disturbing is it points to an unsustainable level of hunting of primate populations in Guinea Bissau.

"This research helped identify the mona monkey as the second most traded species which tells us that the most targeted species in the past, such as baboons and colobus monkeys have declined so dramatically that hunters are now forced to target more available species such as the mona and green monkeys.

"Ultimately the work only goes to stress the urgent need to better protect primate populations in Guinea Bissau."

The team now plan to initiate a survey in the entire territory to locate the remaining population of each primate species – to combine data with ecology spatial analysis to assess the population size, genetic diversity and ultimately to update the conservation status to help protect the most threatened populations and assure their long-term survival.



DNA identification of primate bushmeat from urban markets in Guinea-Bissau and its implications for conservation is published in Biological Conservation Minhós,T, Wallace, E, da Silva, MJ, Sá, RM, Carmo, M, Barata, A & Bruford, MW (2013)

For further information or media interview, please contact:

Professor Mike Bruford

Cardiff University

School of Biosciences


Tel: +44 (0)29 208 74312
Mob: 07894228870

Tania Minhós

Tel: +351 91 675 42 88

Chris Jones
Tel: +44(0)29 2087 4731

Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff's three flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places.