ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

From antelope meat to crocodile boots, the illegal trade in wildlife products is a multibillion dollar business. It's a difficult trade to stop, in part, because authorities often can't tell whether a frozen hunk of meat or a skin comes from a protected animal or not.

But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, there's a technology that could give wildlife investigators a new tool to identify what kind of animal a product came from, even from a single scale or feather.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The key to this whole idea is DNA, DNA from animals and insects. It's stored here.

This is the real bowels of the museum, isn't it?

Dr. GEORGE AMATO (Evolutionary Biologist, American Museum of Natural History): It really is. You can sort of follow the pipes and wires and ducts and everything…

JOYCE: George Amato is an evolutionary biologist, and he works at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It's 19th century, a gigantic stone castle of a building. We're somewhere deep in the basement. Amato is going to show me something called the Barcode of Life Data System. The system's guts, if you will, is a storehouse of frozen animal tissue.

Dr. AMATO: Everything from microbes to whales.

JOYCE: In a locked room stands seven steel canisters. They look like six-foot-tall thermoses.

Ms. JULIE FEINSTEIN (Collections Manager, American Museum of Natural History): And we have about 70,000 samples right now. We have a continuous influx.

JOYCE: Julie Feinstein keeps everything inside those thermoses cooled with liquid nitrogen. Scientists from around the world have been sending samples here for years, from rainforests in Costa Rica or museum drawers in Chicago. Amato opens one canister to see inside.

Dr. AMATO: We'll make sure that you don't either freeze your nose or your hands to the side of the vat, so…

JOYCE: Each holds boxes of tiny vials, bits of butterfly wings, whale blubber, you name it. They're analyzing them to build up a reference library of DNA from different species.

Dr. AMATO: We get DNA from feathers. They could be blood samples, skin samples, or for smaller organisms, we might have the whole organism.

JOYCE: What Amato and his colleagues want to do now is use bits of this DNA library to curb trade in endangered wildlife. Here's how it would work: Let's say you're a customs agent who's found a hunk of meat in a suitcase. You don't know if it's a duiker antelope or hamburger. So you send a bit of it to Amato.

What Amato has identified is a particular sequence of DNA in every animal that seems to be unique to every species. He calls it a DNA barcode. So a duiker antelope has a barcode that's different from other antelopes, or cows for that matter. Amato compares the DNA from the customs agent to the DNA in his library and knows right away if the meat is legal.

A lot of the trade that wildlife authorities want to stop is in bush meat. It can be anything from antelope to monkey. Biologist Mitch Eaton at the U.S. Geological Survey has documented the trade in the forests of Central Africa.

Mr. MITCH EATON (Biologist, United States Geological Survey): These regions are becoming more and more global. It's not just local hunting that's happening any more. The increase in pressure on these forests for economic and commercial purposes is growing very quickly.

JOYCE: Eaton says wildlife investigators need a tool to figure out what's okay for local consumption and what's prohibited for trading across international borders, whether it's meat or refined products like skins.

Mr. EATON: If these things are being transported as refined products or pieces of wildlife and they have no ability to tell what species it actually is, they would be able to use this technology and it takes all the guesswork out, really.

Dr. AMATO: These are leather products that were confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and sent to us.

JOYCE: In the DNA lab at the Natural History Museum in New York, Amato pulls down a box of handbags, briefcases, shoes. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service provided them so Amato could test his barcode technology. Because the leather goods have been processed or preserved in some way, it's hard to get clean DNA, but the barcoding still works some of the time.

Dr. AMATO: This pair of boots, you can see where we've removed one of the scales to do the isolation. These boots, I think, we looked online and they sold for $4,000 a pair. I think they were supposed to be made out of Nile crocodile. I'll have to see, yeah.

JOYCE: Amato's team has just described its barcode technique in the journal Conservation Genetics. Amato says they've already identified illegal imports of whale, dolphin meat and even smoked monkey.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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