Lafeber’s May 2024 Global Parrot Conservation Spotlight: New Parrot DNA Database to Track Illegal Trading

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Dr. Olah examines a cockatoo feather.
Image by George Olah, PhD

George Olah, PhD, of the Australian National University (ANU) College of Science has been on the cutting edge of conservation research, tropical ecology, and sequencing technology for many years. I have been following his work on behalf of wild parrots with awe for a long time – from Tambopata, Peru to Indonesia. He has created some remarkable documentaries about the plight of parrots while simultaneously conducting invaluable research. His latest project involves the creation of a new DNA database that will assist in tracking the illegal parrot trade, which will also benefit birds that are eligible for reintroduction back to their homes.

New DNA Database Project to Combat Illegal Parrot Trade

This story is best told by a recent press release from ANU as follows:

lab, laboratory
Dr. Olah of the Australian National University (ANU) College of Science at work in his lab.
Image by George Olah, PhD

DNA databases are often used by police to place criminals at the scene of a crime, but Dr. George Olah has something else in his sights: parrots.

“In this case, we’re not catching the parrot as a criminal,” he hastens to add. “The parrot is the victim.”

Parrots are, by number, among the most trafficked bird in the illegal wildlife trade, motivating Dr Olah, from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, to develop a project which has been called “CSI, but for parrots”.

Bringing together criminology and conservation, Dr. Olah is creating a forensic genomic toolkit which will help authorities to track illegal trade routes.

As its first test-case, the project is starting in Indonesia, which has been identified as the highest priority country for parrot conservation. “If you want to focus on research that makes an impact, this is it,” says Dr. Olah.

cockatoo, white cockatoo
Cockatoos confiscated from illegal trade in Indonesia. Image by George Olah, PhD

The toolkit will consist of cutting-edge, but low-cost, sequencing technology which can be used in the field. Samples will be collected from threatened species, via a feather or a drop of blood taken from a chick, and then fed into a genetic database which authorities can consult when investigating parrots they believe have been taken illegally from the wild. “It will be like the human database, CODIS, which the FBI manages,” Dr. Olah says.

“For traded wildlife, we don’t yet have a DNA database like the one Interpol is using, for instance, to identify missing persons through international police cooperation. Once we have it, we can do network analysis, showing which birds are coming from which islands.

“We hope that after a few years, we would have a map which shows the main trade routes so law authorities can focus on those islands and work with communities there to see who is behind the poaching, and why.

“The database will tell us about the whole dynamics of the trade and help authorities to make a global case.” The toolkit will also facilitate the reintroduction of confiscated parrots, helping depleted wild populations to recover.

“Currently, there might be a confiscation of parrots in Java, but no-one knows where in the wild they were taken from, so they end up in rescue centers. I visited a few of these centers and often they’re really crowded.

“But if we can prove to the authorities that the birds come from a particular island, then after health screening and disease testing, we can facilitate them being moved back to this origin.”

As well as being a threat to biodiversity, wildlife trafficking is increasingly a global public health issue because of its role in spreading zoonotic diseases. This is a “huge issue” for the region, Dr. Olah says. “So if we know more about the illegal wildlife market, we can safeguard not only the animal species but humans too.”

Dr. Olah, who has worked on several nature documentaries including BBC’s Seven Worlds, One Planet, hopes the project will increase awareness about the reality of the wildlife trade.

salmon-crested cockatoos, salmon crest, cockatoos
A group of confiscated salmon-crested cockatoos in Indonesia. Photo by George Olah, PhD

“There’s not much information out there about the parrot trade and lots of people assume that it’s all legal. I hope to make a film which can show what’s actually going on under the table, which is that often parrots bought as legal birds are coming from the wild.

“We can show the suffering associated with the trade, which is really horrible for the animals, and also a direct link to how the poaching is negatively influencing the wild population.”

Dr. Olah says that people are naturally attracted to the beauty and intelligence of parrots, and feel a strong connection to them as pets, but having observed them closely in the wild, he believes this is where birds belong.

“I was working with macaws in the Amazon, and when you are on top of these huge tree canopies and you see the immense, endless rainforest from, literally, the birds-eye perspective, it’s just such freedom.

“They belong to that wide open space.”

This month’s Lafeber grant goes to help support the creation of new DNA database technology to help track illegal trade routes and captured wild parrots, assist in enforcement of the traffickers, and facilitate reintroduction of confiscated parrots back to their homelands. You can keep up with this project’s videos, and results at a new website: https://stopparrottrade.org.  And you can learn more about Dr. Olah and support his very consequential ongoing work at https://wildlifemessengers.org/

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