New Forensic Tools Can Spot Illegally Traded Exotic Birds with a Single Feather

Animals which are critically endangered in the wild, are becoming increasingly common sights in pet markets around the world. New tools may help the authorities separate the captive-bred from those snatched from the wild.

Author Mark Newton, 10.29.21

When it comes to exotic birds, few are more popular as pets than cockatoos. With their high intelligence, affectionate behaviour and penchant for acrobatics, cockatoos, such as the yellow crested cockatoo, are now a familiar sight in many pet stores and animal markets across the world. 

However, their popularity as pets has led to their numbers in the wild dropping significantly, and the yellow cockatoo is now considered endangered in its native Indonesia – with only around 2,500 spread across the various islands.

The capture, export and sale of cockatoos is now restricted by law, but in many situations the official quotas are exceeded by a large margin. The illegal trade grabbed headlines in 2015, when a smuggler attempted to transport 24 yellow-crested cockatoos stuffed into plastic bottles.

Now, the Hong Kong University is developing new forensic methods which can quickly, and cheaply, identify the origin of cockatoos being sold in animal markets. Hong Kong, in particular, has its own special relationship with the cockatoo, as the city is home to a large wild urban population derived from escaped and released animals. However, investigations by the university team also revealed there are more birds for sale in the various pet markets than is possible given the legal quotas on cockatoo imports. This means some of the birds were illegally captured and smuggled into the market.

The teams new method uses stable isotope analysis to look into the diets of individual birds. The technology itself is not entirely new, and has been used from animal migration studies to research into prehistoric human diets. By examining the isotopes within a sample from an animal, a feather in the cockatoos’ case, the researchers can identify the levels of carbon and nitrogen within it. These elements will vary depending on the diet of the bird, which can then be used to deduce whether a particular bird was bred in captivity or taken from the wild.

If this is inconclusive, the team can delve even further, and examine the ​​​​carbon values of the specific amino acids of a specimen.

To develop their concept, the team embarked on an extensive survey of feathers both recovered from the wild and provided by owners of domesticated cockatoos. Developing a baseline from which comparisons can be made is essential to the accuracy of stable isotope analysis. All the work seemed to pay off. When they tested their approach using a sample of random feathers, they were successfully able to identify the wild feathers from the non-wild ones.

In theory, the stable isotope approach is not limited to cockatoos, or even birds. The approach can be applied to any living animal as long as their wild and captive diets vary enough. However, the practicality of the approach will vary greatly depending on the animal, largely due to the necessity of finding enough viable samples from wild animals to create a comparative baseline. Finding samples from cockatoos is easy enough, but grabbing a sample from endangenered animals such as the tiger, is a much more daunting prospect. Animals which regularly change their diet on a seasonal basis can also complicate the process.

Currently, the team is looking to further refine their approach so stable isotope analysis can be used as admissible evidence in court. The technology is still relatively novel, and it will take some further refinement before it can be used by law enforcement agencies.

However, it does have some other benefits in its favour. The basic analysis can be done quickly and cheaply, with results after only 24 hours. This is especially important if a large sample of animals was to be tested. The approach is also much cheaper than other methods of testing, making it a more attractive alternative. Although the more in-depth amino acid testing takes longer – around a week – it is also still much quicker than established testing methods.

Ultimately, the method could be made available to the public, so owners themselves can test their own animals to ensure they were legally purchased.

A Viral Trade Fuelled by Social Media

The sale in exotic pets is nothing new, however the development of new markets and new communication tools means the trade has now ballooned into a multi-million dollar blackmarket.

The trade is also highly receptive to consumer demand, which can fluctuate based on which exotic animals are currently “trending” on social media or Youtube videos. For example, after a video showing a captive slow loris eating rice balls went viral in 2015, it triggered a surge in demand and increased poaching for the pet trade. Other animals, such as grey parrots, Indian star tortoises and red-eyed tree frogs are also often targeted and essentially ‘laundered’ into the legal trade in these animals.

As well as leading to destruction of the native wild populations of these animals, the illegal pet trade also results in other issues. Firstly, even if the animals themselves reach a caring owner, they often have to endure terrible conditions which can cause long term harm, especially to intelligent animals such as parrots. Secondly, the introduction of unverified wild animals also poses a biohazard in terms of transferable diseases. In the US throughout the 1970s, there was an outbreak of the exotic Newcastle disease (END), which resulted in the deaths of 12 million birds in the U.S. The virus was thought to originate from illegally important parrots from South America.

Furthermore, many of these exotic animals are often later abandoned, often when the expense of their care becomes prohibitive, or they fall out of ‘fashion’. Deliberately released animals then pose a threat to native biodiversity.

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