Consumption of bushmeat is considered to be a major contributor to the decline of large-bodied, African mammals like primates. In a recently published article in Biological Conservation, a group of scientists presented the use of DNA sequences to help in the conservation efforts of these primates.
Part of the conservation effort to protect African primates is to research the route of their consumption, by examining chains of trade and which species are traded most frequently, and this examination is usually conducted by observation and interactions with locals at trade markets.
Analysis of markets is a common method of researching bushmeat trade because it is considered to be faster, more cost-effective, and more readily accessible than estimating the decline or abundance of species in hunted areas. However, this method can pose many challenges due to vendors who are reluctant to disclose their involvement in the trade market, vendors who deliberately mislead researchers in attempts to protect themselves, and the meat that is often smoked or butchered, making it difficult to distinguish between species of similar size and shape.
Thus, scientists, Minhós et al., aimed to find an alternative method of bushmeat trade analysis that would reduce the risk of errors in identifying the species being traded in markets. The team turned to DNA barcoding, a method of identifying species through DNA sequences such as those found in mitochondria.
Minhós et al. examined two markets in Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, and analyzed the bushmeat trade by conducting a market survey of the locals and by applying the method of DNA barcoding to the species being traded. This was the first study where molecular species identification was integrated into an African urban market survey.
The results of the study indicated that DNA barcoding was an effective method in correctly identifying the species being traded at the markets.
While vendors failed to identify certain species, leading to a false impression about the most hunted primate species, DNA barcoding revealed the true frequencies of hunted species and established that C. sabaeus was the most hunted species instead of C. campbelli, as the data gathered from the vendors suggested.
Vendors also had difficulties in distinguishing between the species whose bodies were similar in shape and size, when smoked.
The findings of the study demonstrated that substantial amounts of species misidentification can arise when analysis is done solely based on identification by market vendors. Misidentification of species can subsequently lead to erroneous conclusions about species-specific frequencies and misdirection in conservation efforts.
Correct identification of the species involved in bushmeat trade can be crucial to the conservation of species because current information about the rate of bushmeat consumption does not take into account the number of primates that are hunted and killed but do not reach urban markets.
In addition to the observation of bushmeat consumption, DNA barcoding can also be used for the enforcement of laws regarding protected species in order to help preserve regional biodiversity. It can be used to detect the illegal trading of protected species and to verify the information given by butchers and/or meat transporters about the type of meat being handled.
Despite the apparent advantages that DNA barcoding presents, this method is not often used due to factors such as monetary constraints and lack of information regarding the relevant DNA sequences, among many. Further studies about and improvement in the quality of data available about the necessary DNA sequences would allow for the wider use of DNA barcoding.
Bushmeat consumption is now considered to be a pantropical crisis, making the study of bushmeat trade essential for the conservation of the involved species, and this study presents DNA barcoding as a viable method for more accurate identifications of the species being traded.
Minhós, T., Wallace, E., Ferreira da Silva, M. J., Sá, R. M., Carmo, M., Barata A., & Bruford, M. (2013). DNA identification of primate bushmeat from urban markets in Guinea-Bissau and its implications for conservation. Biological Conservation, 167, 43-49.
Formal, April Choi