QIAGEN joins the hunt for Kenyan wildlife poachers
Officials build new forensic lab on foundation of QIAGEN technology
Satao was one of Kenya’s largest and most beloved elephants. He was a “tusker,” an elephant whose ivory tusks were so long, they nearly touched the red ground of his Tsavo region home. His almost 2 meter (6-1/2-foot) long tusks made him a big favorite of visitors to Tsavo East National Park. They made him an even bigger target for poachers. In May, the legendary elephant, thought to be more than 45 years old, became one of the hundreds killed in Kenya each year for their ivory.
Satao was a special elephant, a rare specimen, according to wildlife experts. But sadly, his story is not unique. In Tsavo East and other national parks on the Kenyan savannah in East Africa, the poaching of elephants, rhinos and hippos for trophies and meat is on the rise. More than 300 elephants were killed in Kenya during 2013. Some experts believe that number is much higher. The number of rhinos killed in 2013 doubled from the year before.
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which manages eight percent of the landmass in the country, including 55 national parks, reserves and sanctuaries, is stepping up its efforts to fight poaching. Speaking at a World Elephant Day celebration in August, near Tsavo East where Satao was killed, KWS Ag. Director General William Kiprono said 575 new rangers will graduate soon and be deployed to assist with the prevention of poaching.
“We [are] modernizing our security operations, systems and rangers deployment to ensure that our troops embrace [the] latest and appropriate technology in their day-to-day operations,” Mr. Kiprono said. “This will enable us [to] achieve high standards of performance and stop any further poaching incidences.”
To complement those efforts in the field, the KWS will soon open a state-of-the-art forensics lab in Nairobi to provide evidence that can be used against poachers in court. The lab will service East and Central Africa, and enable the KWS to process and test all of its own samples, eliminating the need to ship to South Africa or the United States for processing.
The genetic fingerprints can be used to determine the species of the animal that the trophy was taken from and potentially provide a link to a specific animal. This is important evidence against poachers that was almost always missing before genetic fingerprinting.
During a ceremony in late September, QIAGEN and its partner Bio-Zeq donated a QIAcube to the KWS lab. The instrument enables the lab to fully automate the preparation of the sample taken from confiscated ivory, horn or meat. The KWS also plans to equip the lab with a Rotor-Gene Q, which will provide genetic fingerprinting of the sample through streamlined, easy-to-use real-time PCR analysis.
The genetic fingerprints developed with the QIAGEN instruments can be used to determine the species of the animal that the trophy was taken from and potentially provide a link to a specific animal. This is important evidence against poachers that was almost always missing before genetic fingerprinting. The genetic fingerprint of the sample can also be checked against reference libraries that allow law enforcement officials to determine the location of the poaching, and increase surveillance and seizure activities in those areas.
Before the lab was established, animal products seized by KWS rangers, that were believed to be part of the illegal wildlife trade, could only be analyzed for human or domestic animal origin. The results of this analysis had little weight in court.
At the ceremony that officially marked the donation of the QIAcube to the KWS, Oriana Zoghbi Harb, QIAGEN’s Specialist International Sales, Commercial Partners EMEA, spoke of the company’s commitment to fighting poaching and her own experiences in Kenya.
“The donation of the QIAcube instrument is a testament to our support of your efforts to fight against poaching and illegal hunting of wildlife,” Ms. Zoghbi Harb said. “The cause you represent is particularly special to me. I have visited your parks, roamed amongst your wildlife and was shocked by the tragic news of the poaching of Satao.”
The number of “great tuskers” like Satao that carry 100 pounds of ivory on each side of their trunk is dwindling at a frightening rate. But the combination of an increased commitment to conventional law enforcement with the latest technology and molecular biology techniques has great potential to curb the destruction of Kenya’s wildlife population by poachers. KWS and QIAGEN have forged a strong collaboration and are deeply committed to its success, as Ms. Zoghbi Harb said. This is great news for the elephants and rhinos, visitors to Kenya’s national parks and preserves, and the country’s economy.