Africa Analysis: Meat DNA testing can help save species

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Speed read

  • DNA testing can ensure food is correctly labelled and police the illegal trade in animal products
  • Foreign-funded projects are bringing the technology to Africa
  • African governments need to do more to back the concept

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African governments need to boost local efforts to protect endangered species by supporting DNA testing, argues Linda Nordling.

The horsemeat scandal that recently hit Europe has shown how DNA testing can improve food monitoring and safety.

Most African countries are yet to adopt the technology despite its huge potential — both in ensuring that food is correctly labelled and in policing the illegal trade in animal products.

Foreign-funded projects are already introducing the concept to Africa. But local buy-in, especially from governments and law enforcement agents, will be critical to harnessing the technology for the good of African people and wildlife.

Donkey burgers

One thing is clear: cheating with meat labelling is not limited to Europe. South Africans got a wake-up call when scientists last month published a study conducted in 2012 showing that 68 per cent of 139 processed meat products from shops and butcheries in the country contained species that were not declared on the label. [1]

Pork and chicken were the most commonly detected 'surprise' meats in the samples, but the scientists also found traces of donkey, goat and water buffalo in the mince, burger patties and sausages under scrutiny.

The findings could pose a challenge to the country's meat industry similar to the one Europe faces. Many South Africans don't eat pork on religious and health grounds. Certain animal species — horses, for instance — are routinely treated with veterinary drugs that can harm humans.

Beating the bushmeat trade

But with rising food prices hitting Africa's poor, some people may not mind a bit of donkey in their burger if it is affordable.

Perhaps a more urgent challenge for DNA analysis in the continent is to curb the rampant illegal trade in meat and products such as horn from endangered animals.

The bushmeat trade threatens many species. In Central and West Africa, this includes primates such as gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. In Madagascar, rare lemurs are killed for their meat.

This not only depletes Africa's jungles and savannahs of their iconic biodiversity. It also increases the risk of diseases jumping from animals to humans. Large African primates can carry the Ebola virus, and scientists believe that HIV first arose in humans handling primate meat carrying simian immunodeficiency viruses, the non-human version of the virus.

Throughout Africa, rhino populations are being destroyed as demand grows for the ground-up horn that people in parts of Asia believe cure disease. More than 1100 rhinos have been poached so far this year in South Africa alone.

Laying the foundations

DNA analysis has been successfully tested in many African countries as a way of curbing illegal bushmeat and wildlife trade.

In 2011, scientists from Nigeria, Portugal and France surveyed bushmeat bought from roadside stalls in Nigeria, discovering meat from rare antelopes, monkeys and the more common cane rat, to mention but a few. [2]

And last year, Tanzanian Stella Bitanyi developed molecular genetic techniques capable of identifying wild herbivore species from the country's Serengeti plains as part of her PhD study. She found meat from both elephant and giraffe on sale in the country's bushmeat markets. [3]

While these projects demonstrate the power of DNA techniques, they have yet to be widely applied in prosecuting wildlife crime and regulating the bushmeat trade, especially outside South Africa.

One hurdle is that testing equipment is expensive and thus unavailable in most African countries. In Bitanyi's case, the samples had to be sent to laboratories in Norway for analysis.

Another barrier is a lack of genetic reference databases to allow samples to be quickly and accurately identified.

A ray of hope

But there is hope that the situation could change soon.

The Kenyan Wildlife Service is establishing its own forensic and genetic laboratory with financial help from healthcare firm Abbott Laboratories and the Taiwan Forestry Bureau. The lab is due to be operational by the end of the year.

A US$3 million project funded by Google's Global Impact Awards will also help build DNA testing capability on the continent. The initiative will create a reference library of DNA 'barcodes'—short genetic sequences that differ between species — for 2,000 endangered species and 8,000 species that are closely related or commonly confused with them.

The project will start by running pilots in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, as well as three other biodiversity-rich countries in Asia and South America. Government agencies in these countries will be taught to use the library for border inspection, prosecution and other enforcement measures related to the illegal trade in endangered species.

However, these projects will only work if governments and law enforcement agencies embrace them. Protecting African wildlife has traditionally been seen as a Western pastime, with concerned Europeans and Americans footing the bill.

This is no longer the case. Many Africans are involved in protecting their natural heritage, and projects such as the barcoding one will further expand awareness on the continent of the responsibility we all share. Governments need to join this groundswell and lead by example.


Linda Nording


Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.