Isotopic Tracers for Endangered River Turtles: A Forensic Tool to Tackle Wildlife Trafficking in the Amazon

Rodrigo Mayrink

Although Brazilian environmental law currently protects wild freshwater chelonians, consumption of their meat and eggs has deep historical and cultural roots in the Amazon region. In the 19th century, intense overexploitation brought species such as South American River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa) and Yellow-spotted River Turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) to the brink of extinction. In the mid-twentieth century the Brazilian government began to structure long-term initiatives for the conservation of these species by engaging environmental agencies, research institutes, universities and NGOs. Along with actions to conserve free-living populations, such as monitoring and protecting breeding sites, environmental regulations authorized commercial breeding of Amazon River turtles in order to reduce illegal trade. However, scientific literature and seizure reports by law enforcement agencies demonstrate that poaching and illegal trade of freshwater turtles remains a critical issue in the Brazilian Amazon. Moreover, investigations conducted by the Brazilian Federal Police in recent years have found evidence that commercial breeders have performed wildlife laundering by trading poached animals as being raised in captivity.

The goal of my research is to achieve (1) a framework of knowledge about isotopic turnover of Amazonian turtle tissues (isotopic incorporation rate, isotopic half-life, diet-tissue discrimination and other parameters), to detect poached turtles on licensed farms and estimate their time in captivity; and (2) a multi-isotopic model for assigning the geographic origin of seized turtles.

My research will provide environmental law enforcement agencies with a forensic tool to more effectively tackle poaching and illegal trade of Amazonian freshwater turtles. According to Brazilian criminal law, forensic examination is mandatory in all crimes that leave evidence. Thus, a forensic method based on strong scientific parameters to detect wildlife laundering through turtle breeding farm and trace the origin of seized animals can greatly improve the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement initiatives in the Amazon, especially in investigations against large trafficking gangs and mafias.

In addition, my work will improve the understanding of the trophic ecology of Neotropical freshwater turtles, thus generating contributions to natural history studies of these animals; and finally, the success of this research in criminal investigations of Amazon turtles trafficking will certainly pave the way for the use of the isotopic technique in other wildlife enforcement actions in Brazil and neighbouring countries, thus contributing to the protection of other endangered species.

Project Updates