Forestry meets forensics in battle against illegal logging

Paternity tests for trees might seem a strange idea but an innovative pilot project launched this week will see the use of DNA sampling to track types of timber and make it harder for illegal loggers to export their product.

Funded by the British Government, the £15,000 pilot project will allow officials to use science to test timber and its legality.

If the pilot proves successful the methods can be rapidly adopted by authorities in all countries where unsustainable forestry is a problem.

The DNA-based monitoring is fairly basic, and easy to use, and will identify the species of tree a particular piece of timber came from.

While it is sometimes easy enough to identify timber from certain trees by eye, this is not always the case and wood from protected species can often slip through the net as it is marked up as another, common type.

UK Biodiversity Minister, Barry Gardiner, made the announcement of funding during his visit to Kuching, Malaysia, where he was discussing sustainable forestry and illegal logging.

“Effective enforcement of the decisions and resolutions made under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) relies upon the identification of individual tree species, which can be a very difficult task.

“Under the current system, accurate identification requires a high level of botanical expertise and extensive wood anatomy collections, which can limit enforcement agencies’ ability to investigate and counter illegal trade.

“If this project is successful it will waymark the development of a generic DNA-based method of identification, which could revolutionise the application of CITES to timber and enable enforcement bodies around the world to really get a grip on the illegal trade in timber.”

The pilot project will focus on a single species, ramin, which is found in Malaysia and Indonesia and frequently imported by the EU and US.

The testing kits are being developed by Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens and private company Wildlife DNA Services Ltd.

Sam Bond

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