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Molecular tracing of confiscated pangolin scales for conservation and illegal trade monitoring in Southeast Asia

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Abstract

Despite being protected by both international and national regulations, pangolins are threatened by illegal trade. Here we report mitochondrial DNA identification and haplotype richness estimation, using 239 pangolin scale samples from two confiscations in Hong Kong. We found a total of 13 genetically distinct cytochrome c oxidase I (COI) haplotypes in two confiscations (13 and ten haplotypes respectively, with ten shared haplotypes between confiscations). These haplotypes clustered in two distinct clades with one clade representing the Sunda pangolin (. Manisjavanica). The other clade did not match with any known Asian pangolin sequences, and likely represented a cryptic pangolin lineage in Asia. By fitting sample coverage and rarefaction/regression models to our sample data, we predicted that the total number of COI haplotypes in two confiscations were 14.86 and 11.06 respectively, suggesting that our sampling caught the majority of haplotypes and that we had adequately characterized each confiscation. We detected substantial sequence divergence among the seized scales, likely evidencing that the Sunda pangolins were harvested over wide geographical areas across Southeast Asia. Our study illustrates the value of applying DNA forensics for illegal wildlife trade monitoring.

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Zhang, H., Miller, M. P., Yang, F., Chan, H. K., Gaubert, P., Ades, G., & Fischer, G. A. (2015). Molecular tracing of confiscated pangolin scales for conservation and illegal trade monitoring in Southeast Asia. Global Ecology and Conservation, 4, 414–422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2015.08.002

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