In the ongoing campaign to protect endangered animals, forensic investigators can already identify the food on your plate. Now they are working on advanced methods of intercepting even the most carefully disguised contraband - be it tuna, caviar or bushmeat. Their ultimate goal: pinpoint where the goods came from, and stop the hunting of endangered species at the source.
Last May, I visited a sushi restaurant in Manhattan with Sergios-Orestis Kolokotronis, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, to learn what scientists can do to protect endangered animals—in this case, bluefin tuna. Some species of bluefin have been fished to near extinction, and many sushi restaurants still serve those species, but on the day of our visit the menu identified the neat rectangles on our plate—trimmed of eyes, skin and other identifying features—simply as "tuna," "fatty tuna" or "medium fatty tuna." They could have been just about anything. The logical first step to protecting tuna, it seems, is to identify it, and to that end Kolokotronis and his colleagues have developed a lab test that would, within a few days, reveal our meal's true identity. "You need just this little bit here," he said, prodding the ruby-colored muscle with his chopsticks. "This contains a lot of DNA. But we'll take more, just in case."
As I ate, Kolokotronis laid out the larger scheme. His hope was that someday the museum's genetic techniques could be simplified to the point that concerned consumers would be able to use an inexpensive handheld device to identify any number of the hundreds of rare animals that might wind up on their table or in their shopping bag. His mentor, George Amato, who directs the museum's Sackler Institute of Comparative Genomics, has also led the development of similar means to identify lion, monkey and whale meat, not to mention pills made from seal bones and even crocodile-skin boots. That knowledge could be transformative. "Sushi is one of my favorite things to eat, but the tuna project has totally changed my perception," Kolokotronis said. "I started asking, 'What am I eating?' And then I refrained from eating bluefin, period."
As I finished my own possibly endangered meal, Kolokotronis explained that he hoped the fight to protect bluefin might undergo a similar process: More and better data about what people are eating might raise public awareness and help governments take concrete steps to regulate trade. Certainly I came to regret my own meal, delicious though it was, when Kolokotronis e-mailed a few days later with the test results. The three samples of generic tuna that I had ordered were all Thunnus thynnus, better known as Atlantic bluefin, the population of which may have declined by 80 percent since 1950.
Most conservationists expect that the Atlantic bluefin trade will eventually face stricter regulation, but trade in the fish will probably continue, especially as prices for the newly forbidden items spike. Then the question will be how to keep endangered species from reaching consumers in the first place. For that, scientists are developing even more advanced methods that will identify not just what kind of animal is at hand, but where the animal was captured. In the future, even the smallest, most processed animal fragment—a snippet of tanned leather, say, or a speck of bone—could lead authorities back to its source. This ability to draw so much data from such ambiguous material, scientists say, is critical to enforcing existing laws, enacting new ones and, ultimately, to keeping imperiled species from extinction.