The illegal trade in endangered animal and plant species damages the environment and threatens the biodiversity of our planet. The trade is diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife derived products, including food products and medicines. Many wildlife species in trade are not yet endangered but the existence of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of the trade is important in order to protect these resources for the future. In Belgium, several government agencies at the federal level are competent to enforce international, European and Belgian laws and aimed at preventing the illegal import of wildlife. Though, in order to achieve their objectives, they rely on accurate identification of organisms and the derived products intercepted at customs.
In 2022, BopCo-CE used DNA techniques to identify, up to 15 samples of different size to species level, intercepted in private luggage at customs in the context of CITES regulation. These samples included, for example, several specimens of the American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius – CITES, annexe II (roots) – highly valued for its sedative medicinal effects but also the so-called poor man's ginseng, Codonopsis pilosula, not CITES listed, but commonly used as a cheaper alternative of P. quinquefolius.
Among other intercepted samples, one was of particular interest as it was identified by BopCo as a mixture of five species of requiem sharks (Carcharhinus spp.). Many requiem shark species are present in the international trade for their fins and meat but they are phenotypically similar and are often taxonomically miss-identified due to extensive morphological intraspecific variation among geographically isolated populations. Although none of the identified Carcharhinus species were CITES listed – it must be noted that only two species of the genus are presently listed on CITES Appendix II: C. falciformis and C. longimanus, but these were not among the six analyzed samples – nineteen additional requiem shark species are currently proposed for listing under CITES App. II including C. plumbeus, which was identified in this request. Sadly, this is not the first case where sharks were seized at customs in Belgium. In 2019, customs officers seized 24 bags containing 1.2 tons of shark fins and ray wings at Zaventem Airport which included fins from the hammerhead shark, protected by the convention since 2013. Its fins can only be traded with the necessary permits, which were not provided.
This shows how useful DNA-based methods are especially in those cases where morphological identifications are difficult or impossible (e.g., processed food items, degraded or fragmented specimens).
This subject was selected by the Belgian Government for a Federal Minute. The Federal Minute is a mini-series of clips of one minute where every week a federal issue is highlighted. The clips are distributed every sunday after the 13:00 news (Eén, VTM, la Une and RTL TVI). The video can be viewed again on Youtube in both NL and FR.