In November 2017, 23-year-old youth from North 24 Parganas in West Bengal killed a wild animal and posted photographs on a social media platform. State Forest Department officials tracked down the man but by then the meat was half cooked and the accused denied all allegations. However, a few samples of the cooked meat brought to the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata, were enough to nail the accused. A forensic DNA analysis showed that the meat was that of the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), a Schedule II species protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The analysis helped Forest Department officials press charges against the youth and in further prosecution of the case.In another incident, Forest Department officials arrested three persons from Raidighi in the State’s South 24 Parganas near the Sunderban National Park. Forest officials suspected that the accused were carrying deer meat. The sample recovered from the suspects gave no clues about identity of the species. In this instance, the ZSI’s DNA analysis showed that the meat was that of cattle. The three accused were subsequently released and cleared of all charges.“With investigating agencies facing increased challenges of collecting evidence to ensure convictions in wildlife crimes, DNA forensics are providing a major headway,” said Mukesh Thakur, a scientist with the ZSI’s wildlife forensics team who has contributed to the research.Details of case studies, where advanced DNA forensics were used to help prosecute wildlife related crimes, have been documented in a recently published ZSI report, titled “Ascertaining species of origin from confiscated meat using DNA forensics and Wildlife forensics in nullifying the false accusation.”“Illegal wildlife crime is not confined to a region or to a country but it is an organized crime where several people are involved — from local hunters to the end buyers. This calls for an urgent need to employ techniques of DNA forensics to improve conviction rate which at present remains very low,” Dr. Thakur told The Hindu. Referring to two instances where pangolin scales were seized from Siliguri in August 2017 and April 2018, Dr. Thakur said DNA analysis revealed that these scales were from the Chinese Pangolin whose habitat is restricted to five states in northeast India including parts of north Bengal.Reference database“We have now developed morphology-based identification protocols for distinguishing scales of Indian and Chinese Pangolin with high confidence,” he said. The ZSI is now developing protocols to identify the number of individuals killed in a seizure from the DNA analyses, he added. Scientists at the ZSI, however, pointed out that in most cases the samples they receive from investigating agencies in cases of wildlife crime are disfigured and have lost characters of morphological identity, which poses a major challenge.Wider database“We are not just confining our efforts up to species identification but our scientists are also involved in creating a reference database to assign the seizures to the source of origin, identifying sexes from seizures to understand poaching/ hunting pressure on the species which might impact the species demography in coming years,” said Director of ZSI Kailash Chandra.According to Dr Chandra, the ZSI is one of four organisations authorised by the Government of India to submit species identification reports from the confiscated materials.“We have a dedicated facility for DNA analysis at the ZSI, where we can identify samples at the molecular level using DNA forensics. This new tool is helping in solving a number of wildlife crimes,” he added. The ZSI has also formulated a standard operating procedure in the investigation of wildlife crime. The ZSI also organised a workshop for law enforcement agencies titled ‘Wildlife Forensics and Crime Control’, where the participants were informed on using new technological tools to combat wildlife crime.