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Lockdown slows wildlife forensics (India)

Sahana Ghosh, Mongabay | May 11, 2020

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As India cautiously emerges from an extended lockdown put in place to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), wildlife forensic scientists have flagged concerns over the delay in investigating wildlife crimes in the country.

The COVID-19 associated lockdown has slowed wildlife forensic work, delaying wildlife crime investigations.

The nationwide lockdown that started on March 25 was recently extended by the government of India until May 17, with some relaxations.

The extended lockdown, which is considered necessary to flatten the curve of the disease, created a chink in the chain for wildlife forensic scientists: from dispatch/reception of samples, transport of chemicals, and processing samples. There is also the apprehension of the possibility of a cut in funds for research.

Wildlife Institute of India scientist Samrat Mondol, who runs the rhino forensic facility said the pause in laboratory activities has resulted in a delay in processing some of the rhino case samples they received just before the lockdown.

“We have not been able to process the samples so definitely there will be delays in providing the reports to concerned authorities. During the lockdown, I received emails from the forest department about cases that they dispatched (or are planning to dispatch), but I am not sure when will I receive them,” Mondol told Mongabay-India.

At the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES), Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology too, forensic work has been affected.

“We have received only two cases recently from nearby areas in Telangana state. This is worrying as investigations on wildlife crimes are being hampered,” said Karthikeyan Vasudevan at LaCONES.

India has a low rate of wildlife crime conviction. As per the available records of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, 9253 people have been arrested in wildlife poaching cases from 2012 to 2018 in the country. The bureau on its website lists 154 convictions from 2009 to 2018.

Navigating the new normal, the scientists are anxious about the post-lockdown and post-COVID-19 scenario, especially preparedness for a spurt in wildlife trade.

“I strongly believe that post lockdown we can expect to see a surge in the trade of wildlife contraband (both live animals as well as their body parts) as demands are going to skyrocket high for traditional medicine uses (as this is one way to make quick money). So, we really need to be prepared to deal with this situation,” Mondol explained.

Funds and Critical Chemicals for Wildlife Forensics

Samrat Mondol described two major concerns regarding general lab functioning, whenever they resume post-lockdown.

“First relates to the transport of chemicals/reagents for lab work. I am not sure how much the shipments of consumables will be affected due to COVID-19. Some of the critical chemicals such as ethanol are absolutely necessary for our laboratory work, and I am not sure when the supplies will become normal,” said Mondol.

“The second problem is a bit more serious. I am worried about the release of funds after the lockdown to continue our work. In almost all of our projects, we were supposed to get funds from different agencies in April 2020, but now that is being delayed. My worry is if the required funds are not released it will seriously impact our research activities,” he added.

Udayan Borthakur at Aaranyak’s Wildlife Genetics Division (WGL) in Assam echoes Mondol. “In the longer run, we also see that funding to research may be an issue due to the impact on the economy.”

Borthakur said during the total lockdown (March 25 to May 4), the only work the scientists could do during this period is to complete data analysis in our computers from home and make few pending reports. The division has resumed operations since May 5 with 50 percent staff strength.

“Now we have some pending laboratory work which we will be completing soon. For wildlife DNA forensic service that our lab provides to the forest department, we normally do not carry out field sampling by ourselves. The forest department collects and sends us samples for analysis in this case. However, for our other research projects that demand fieldwork, it will be hard for us to continue for the next few months till we can ensure the safety of our workers,” Borthakur told Mongabay-India.

“In view of the current pandemic and the associated issues of wildlife crime, I feel such labs should now concentrate on developing databases that can aid in forensic investigations and help reduce wildlife crime,” said Borthakur.

Extra Vigilance and Personnel Safety

Even as they try to figure out how the whole situation will impact regular functions, going ahead, experts concur on extra vigilance on already established stringent protocols as lockdown ceases.

Samrat Mondol said: “Generally, our forensic lab functions and protocols are quite stringent in dealing with samples (starting from the sample receiving till processing). As we mostly deal with poaching and seizure-related cases (where the disease is not a major concern), our standard forensic lab protocols generally take care of researchers’ safety. However, we need to be extra cautious given the situation now.”

“Personally, I am not much worried by wildlife samples coming to the facility as we are still not sure how much of the disease is spread from animal to human. But we need to be more careful with people coming to our facility to provide samples. This is a standard practice to maintain ‘Chain of Custody’. Our institute is planning to take appropriate measures to deal with such situations here. We will have to see how things work out after lockdown ends,” Mondol observed.

Vasudevan stressed on personnel safety.

“Although the samples are opened, processed under controlled conditions under a hood before being taken to the lab for further analysis, more stringent precautions will be followed with special containment conditions so as to avoid any disease/infection. Emphasis will be on personnel safety. Another concern will be the secured storage of samples until the analysis is complete and subsequent incineration,” he said.

Collection, storage/packaging, and transport will need more strict protocols before the samples reach the lab for DNA analysis.

“The forest authorities/staff need to be trained about the serious implications related to incorrect and improper handling of samples at the time of collection for their safety as well as safety of people in the lab. Although we train them for collection and storage of biological samples, stringent precautions to be followed at the time of collection and handling of samples in the field will be disseminated,” said Vasudevan.

The researchers call for enhanced efforts and investment in wildlife forensics.

“With regard to One Health, wildlife forensics should be an integral part of this program. Forensic samples could serve as ‘sentinel samples’ that might serve as warning signals before an episode of a disease outbreak. Therefore, there is a serious need for increased efforts and investment in wildlife forensics for accurate detection/diagnosis,” said Vasudevan.

Elaborating on the demand for DNA forensics in northeast India, Borthakur said while they started primarily with population genetics studies, wildlife studies, and using genetic tools for population monitoring including accurate estimation of population size, they eventually stepped into DNA forensics due to the demand that persists in the region.

Borthakur maintained that with a handful of institutes (wildlife forensics) for a big country like India, providing timely service is not possible.

“India must work towards the development of state-level facilities to promote the use of wildlife forensics so that the conviction rate can be increased. Wildlife disease investigation is another aspect that needs to be taken seriously and state level institutes should be empowered to take up extensive studies in this regard so that we have decentralisation of resources and expertise when it comes to the ground level investigation of zoonotic diseases and potential epidemic or pandemic situations,” explained Borthakur.

Pandemic or no pandemic, India is always in a situation to seriously work on illegal wildlife trade asserted Mondol.

“Our country is among the top in biodiversity-rich places globally, and will always accordingly be under threats from poaching and harvesting these resources. Wildlife forensics is one of many ways to deal with this challenge and we need all the support possible to fight this never-ending war. The whole crime syndicate chain works in complex ways and tracing and breaking are going to be a continuous fight,” added Mondol.