Forensic application of DNA barcoding for identification of illegally traded African pangolin scales

Monica Mwale, Desire Lee Dalton, Raymond Jansen, Marli De Bruyn, Darren Pietersen, Prudent S. Mokgokong, Antoinette Kotze

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The escalating growth in illegal wildlife trade and anthropogenic habitat changes threaten the survival
of pangolin species worldwide. All eight extant species have experienced drastic population size reductions
globally with a high extinction risk in Asia. Consequently, forensic services have become critical for law enforcement, with a need for standardised and validated genetic methods for reliable identifications. The seizure of three
tonnes of pangolin scales, believed to have originated from Africa, by Hong Kong Customs Authorities provided an
opportunity for the application of DNA barcoding in identifying scales. Three mitochondrial DNA gene regions
(COI, Cyt b, and D-loop) were amplified for a subsample of the confiscated material and compared with taxonomically verified references. All four African species were recovered as monophyletic with high interspecific uncorrected p-distance estimates (0.048–0.188) among genes. However, only three of four African species (Phataginus
tricuspis, Phataginus tetradactyla, and Smutsia gigantea, originating from West and Central Africa) and one of four
Asian species (Manis javanica from Southeast Asia) were identified among scales. Although the assignment of
unknown scales to specific species was reliable, additional genetic tools and representative reference material are
required to determine geographic origins of confiscated pangolin specimens.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)272-284
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2016


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