Featured article from the University of the Philippines Media and Public Relations Office
Written by Andre DP Encarnacion
Dr. Ian Kendrich Fontanilla, Head of the Institute of Biology’s DNA Barcoding Laboratory. Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO.

While recent news of giant clams (Tridacna gigas) being harvested in the disputed Scarborough Shoal drew massive outrage online, it was only the latest low point in the dark history of wildlife exploitation in the region. A poignant series of cases also happened here in 2013 and 2014, this time involving pangolins or “scaly anteaters,” which have been described as the most trafficked animals in the world.

All eight species of pangolins have been declared to be at least threatened globally. The Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis), however, has been named critically endangered. It was no surprise then that the nation recoiled in horror in 2013 when a Chinese vessel stranded in the Tubbataha marine national park was found with over 3,000 frozen pangolins on board. Barely a year later, Palawan officials confiscated even more of these from two residential buildings and a tricycle in Puerto Princesa City.

While everyone feared that Palawan-endemic Philippine pangolins were the ones involved, this proved difficult to confirm visually. As pangolins are hunted primarily for their scales, which are made of keratin (the same as that found in human hair and nails) and meat, they are typically skinned after being smoked out, bludgeoned to death, and boiled beyond recognition. For justice to be served, what was needed here was a scientifically credible system to ascertain the exact pangolin species found in these shipments.

Luckily, a team from the University of the Philippines Institute of Biology led by Dr. Ian Kendrich Fontanilla, Mr. Adrian Luczon and the late Dr. Perry Ong had been working to perfect such a system. The geneticists and the conservation biologist joined forces with fellow experts to pioneer a method called DNA barcoding.

DNA barcoding uses the molecular fingerprint of DNA found in even processed remains to accurately determine the specific species. This is done by reading selected genes like product barcodes against a database of samples collected, to aid both science and law enforcement. Together with a close-knit group of institutions, Fontanilla is working to help this database include all endemic species in the country and be a frontline tool against illegal wildlife exploitation.

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