Written by Heather Jones, CNN
Timber poachers are reaping huge profits, especially from illegal harvesting of illegal timber. A company called Indonesian Forestry Licensing Authority (IFLA) is working with American forensic research company Macro Labs to fight back.
Using a technique called tree DNA testing, the firm has identified 52 samples of illegally harvested tusks and is working to reopen more than 40 criminal cases.
For decades, forensic investigators have built DNA-based links between samples of animal bones and pathogens. As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, blood and other DNA from animals can offer a “strong clinical indicator of disease and pathogen.”
Seeking to use this science more effectively to trace illegal timber trade, the IFLA has turned to Macro Labs to provide an online platform for examining how deep the bacterial genetic pathway might go.
Here’s how it works: Scientists tag plant samples taken from hardwood trees and send them to Macro Labs in America. Their team then sequences the DNA of the sample, assigning a name to each individual gene, along with the species and date they were harvested.
To date, the IFLA has tested more than 500 samples of processed hardwood trees in three areas. Microbiologists are now at work working to identify additional species of plants linked to illegal logging.
On Friday, the IFLA published three reports showing their investigations into tree-by-tree timber and the infrastructure that supports it.
During the harvesting season, it is legal for a carrier company to do up to one ton of harvest in a season. “The transshipment is where there is most amount of evidence,” Ajaani Wasini, IFLA’s conservation, finance and forensic director, told CNN. “We have found that the domestic industries that were buying timber were directly implicated in at least 30 cases of transshipment.”
The platforms have also helped identify a major trail of illicit timber from several countries to Asia via Malaysia. One of the cases unearthed by Macro Labs was a joint investigation between the IFLA and Malaysia’s Environmental Crimes Task Force, which uncovered secret documentation of a huge shipment of banned timber.
“It appears this company had purchased at least 10,000 tons of large timber from illegal logging sites in Indonesia,” says the IFLA’s report.
The shipments were stopped in Malaysia and over 100 arrests were made, including 12 that were connected to the illegal logging trade. As of Friday, the cases are still ongoing.
“We believe that there is probably going to be more prosecutions coming down on this case,” said Wasini.
“This is not only to be seen as justice,” said Rodger Burns, Macro Labs’ CEO, “but as a victory in the fight against deforestation and the illegal logging industry.”
He told CNN that the company, whose range of scientific test kits covers the 12 metabolic pathways of bacteria, has enabled Indonesian researchers to use a single test to identify every single gene in 24 different plant samples, compared to a test library of just 30 genes previously.
“The number of swabs needed to distinguish the gene sequences can be significantly reduced with our service, which has helped in the identification of large stocks of illicit illegally harvested timber, including from highly valued mineral resources like hardwood,” Burns said.
Speaking at the 2016 TED conference, Burns outlined some of the measures Macrocaps would follow to protect forests worldwide.
At the time, he argued that the world should consider using the same genetic testing methodology “not only for new, non-hazardous crops, but also for highly trafficked ecosystems like wildlife, wetlands, coral reefs, rich marine ecosystems, old growth forests and biodiverse forest habitats.”
Burns is currently setting up a monitoring program using another genetically modified DNA test. In the next four years, he says that there will be a laboratory available for individuals to test vegetation around the world using Macro Labs’ “environmental biosystem map.”
Cayenne McNair, a chemical engineer at the University of Oregon, who recently conducted a study involving Macro Labs’ forensic DNA database, agreed.
“Genetics databases can be very powerful tools for understanding complex health outcomes and diseases,” she said in an email to CNN. “DNA can provide a more detailed, specific view of evolution and change, which may help to advance the effort to better treat not only epidemics but also chronic diseases.”