Cheaper DNA identification could end a lucrative illegal trade in protected New Zealand wildlife. All it needs are some careful law changes. Current law prohibits buying and selling threatened species. That is to minimise the profits from poaching that could strip breeding populations. But the prohibitions perversely increase the scarcity value that makes poaching lucrative. Now DNA technology can cheaply and quickly identify the family of individuals in a population. It could tell which are descended from an authorised commercially bred line and which are from the wild population. This means a licensed commercial supply could satisfy the demand that otherwise creates black market poacher profits. The technology can also strengthen protection of the wild population with more simple prosecutions for illegal possession while licensed breeding for sale could enable endangered species to grow into comfortably secure numbers. Unlike cats and possums, human predators of our wildlife rarely get headlines. Last year was an exception. Caught in the spotlight were some illegal kereru harvesters, and the unfortunate pukeko cullers who shot the takahe they were supposed to be protecting. But we've had no Cecil the lion. Our rare species are hunted nevertheless. Our valuable wildlife are the likes of skinks and geckos. Our ruthless armed poachers are harmless looking operators lurking among the backpackers. Black markets offer rich rewards with low risks of detection. A Radio NZ story last year mentioned jewelled geckos selling for up to $30,000. The Otago Daily Times reported in 2011 that up to 200 were taken in one year. Harlequin geckos fetch a similar price. Tuatara have been estimated to be worth $30,000 to $50,000 each in Europe.
Our valuable wildlife are the likes of skinks and geckos. Our ruthless armed poachers are harmless looking operators lurking among the backpackers.A poacher trying to sell a wild animal, and the buyer, face the risk of a genetic fingerprint test for around $50. Instead of having to prove all the circumstances of illegal taking, the law can make simple possession of an uncertified animal extremely expensive and risky. That should be the case under current law, but the law creates artificial scarcity that also hikes the returns from possession. The new approach deals with the incentives. There is other recent science to back up the DNA info. We can double check from an animal's tissue whether its diet shows it grew up in captivity or in the wild. This approach need not be confined to rare breeds. Maori could once again routinely feast on farmed kereru, without risk to wild populations. Digby Livingston is a lawyer with Franks Ogilvie, a Wellington based public law firm. Previously he was employed in South East Asia to report on python farms under a United Nations programme to monitor compliance with regulations with the aim of exporting farming models to other developing countries. Stephen Franks is a principal of Franks Ogilvie, a former Act MP and a member of Forest and Bird. Contributions are welcome and should be 500-700 words. Send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.