A new conservation tool developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is making significant strides in safeguarding Africa’s lions, whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades due to poaching and other threats.
This innovative tool, called the Lion Localizer, utilizes a simple DNA test to trace the geographic origin of poached lion products like teeth, claws, bones, and other body parts.
The origin of lion products is often unknown, but this information is crucial for understanding the impact on local populations and allocating conservation resources.
“For example, the West African lion population is tiny, and it’s really, heavily threatened. We cannot afford to lose any; we count individuals,” said Rob Ogden, director and co-founder of TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, who collaborated with U. of I. on the project. “But if a product is coming out of East Africa, then it might not be so critical in terms of population numbers, although law enforcement still needs to know about it.”
TRACE reached out to Alfred Roca, a professor at the U. of I., after he published the Loxodonta Localizer for tracking illegal ivory to elephant populations. Roca teamed up with doctoral researcher Wesley Au to build a database containing every sequence of relevant lion mitochondrial DNA ever published, spanning 146 locations across Africa and India.
“When a user queries their lion mitochondrial DNA sequence in the Lion Localizer, the system will compare it with the database of sequences and then provide a map showing where the lion was likely poached,” explained Au. “Many of those localities are linked to unique sequences, which can be especially useful for locating the source population.”
Mitochondrial DNA was chosen because it is inherited maternally, and female lions, who roam less than males, provide more permanent geographic markers.
Moreover, the smaller size of the mitochondrial genome, compared to the nuclear genome, makes it feasible for labs with basic equipment to extract and amplify enough DNA for analysis in the Lion Localizer.
“Many labs in Africa or the transit and destination countries that confiscate lion parts should be able to generate sequences from mitochondrial DNA,” Roca said. “It’s a straightforward lab procedure.”
With only 23,000 to 39,000 lions left in Africa, the Lion Localizer could be vital in preventing further declines.
“From my perspective, I think getting a better handle on the trade routes – where are the lions coming from? – will help a lot,” said Simon Dures, project officer at TRACE.
“The Lion Localizer is very much designed as an intelligence tool. It allows countries to see these patterns and focus on areas where lions are not doing particularly well in the wild. Just giving them that extra chance,” he concluded.
This research is detailed in the Journal of Heredity and was supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s VukaNow program.
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