Alongside climate change, the biodiversity crisis is one of the most pressing current problems facing the global community. The destruction of habitats but also the exploitation of natural resources through illegal trade of animals and plants as well as products thereof, now threaten biodiversity on a dramatic scale. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, the illegal trade of animals and animal products is a multi billion dollar business (https://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/illegal-wildlife-trade.html), comparable in scale to the illegal drug and arms trade. In fact, the loss of global biodiversity threatens the collapse of entire ecosystems and thus the loss of basic ecosystem services on which humans depend.
Apart from the fact that, according to current estimates, only about 25% of the world’s biodiversity has been recorded so far, it is still only possible to reliably identify and document organisms at all with a great deal of effort. This reliable identification and comparison of organisms and samples thereof is on the one hand a basic prerequisite for any conservation activity, but on the other hand still represents one of the greatest challenges for end users (processing industry), environmental protection authorities (customs and environmental authorities, CITES, EU), breeders (zoological and botanical gardens, private breeders) but also for actors from organismic academic research. The specific issues of the different stakeholders may diverge accordingly: while the processing industry is interested in a transparent supply chain (e.g. traceability of an individual crocodile skin back to the handbag), environmental authorities are interested in both an unambiguous and fast species identification and a forgery-proof proof of origin (e.g. “proof of parentage” for supposed offspring) for legal reasons. Similarly, breeders of rare and endangered species are interested not only in precise species and subspecies identification, but also in the level of relatedness between their breeding animals in order to optimize their breeding plans.
Our approach to improve the identification of taxonomic units on the one hand and the deciphering of the level of relatedness within a species on the other hand, is to develop a universally applicable method that generates a genetic fingerprint for all higher organisms that, accordingly, we call UFoL (Universal Fingerprint of Life).
Cooperation with 'Turtle Island'
The cooperation with Turtle Island in Graz (Austria) – one of the largest and most valuable institutions of its kind in terms of species protection is a good example of our diverse efforts to support non-commercial keeping and breeding. Through Turtle Island, Ark Biodiversity is also involved in a growing number of global projects aimed at breeding endangered turtle species and reintroducing them to natural habitats.
Jointly with the private zoo Turtle Island, we are optimizing the UFol method so that (a) all genotyped animals are clearly identifiable in a later examination, (b) postulated offspring can clearly be assigned to the corresponding parents/breeding groups and (c) subspecies that are hardly recognizable from the outside can be identified as such. These applications of the UFoL thus serve as a proof of origin, which makes illegal animal smuggling unprofitable. As an unambiguous determination of relationship, species and subspecies, the UFol method also makes any scientific conservational breeding planning much easier (e.g. by avoiding inbreeding or hybrids).
Cooperation with the leather processing industry
In collaboration with our leather processing partners, we are working to ensure that our UFoL method can (a) identify the appropriate species (e.g., Nile crocodile) from a leather product (e.g., crocodile leather bag) and (b) trace an initially genotyped individual through the entire supply or processing chain at any point (“from farm to handbag “). This is to prevent infiltration of supply chains by poached animals or protected species (which are subject to a trade ban).