article / 13 February 2024

New DNA tests achieve first convictions for raptor thefts

A set of highly discriminating STR DNA markers developed in a collaboration between the SASA wildlife forensics lab and University of Leicester researchers is being used to detect laundering of wild peregrine falcons into the captive-bred market for onward sale as racing birds in the Middle East.

In the past 15 years the number of exports of captive-bred peregrines from the UK has risen from 73 to almost 3,500 driven largely by the demand for birds to compete in high-stakes races in the Middle East where the prize money runs to millions of dollars. Middle Eastern falconers particularly favour birds from the north of the species range as these are considered the fastest and strongest and the value of wild birds has consequently risen dramatically with the sudden popularity of racing as a sport. Until 2008 the UK had a registration scheme that required captive breeders to declare the parentage of any young birds they raised and then to submit a document that allowed the authorities to track the bird when it was sold on. DNA profiling could be used to check claimed parentage and several raptor thieves were prosecuted during the 1990s which had a strong deterrent effect.  With the abandonment of registration the way was opened to take birds from the wild and more easily launder them into captivity and this has recently been incentivized by the birds' increasing value.  The recently validated forensic test which uses many highly discriminating STR genetic markers characterized by our former PhD student Jordan Beasley has now been applied in several cases during a crackdown on this trade with the first being widely reported today ( &  You can read scientific details about the markers used here

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