The laundering of wild caught animals as ‘captive bred’ is an emerging trend in wildlife crime and the illegal pet trade. Enforcement of such activities requires accurate identification of laundered individuals, the development of validated genetic tools to investigate pedigrees, and the impetus of agencies involved in compliance to implement. The aim of this study was to assess the utility of 13 previously developed species-specific microsatellite loci in elucidating familial relationships in an endemic Australian snake species, the broad-headed snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides), for which illegal activity had been identified as a threat to the species. We tested these genetic markers on a mix of captive animals held by zoos, privately owned individuals kept under licence, seized animals, and wild-sourced individuals. These loci contain sufficient variability to clearly discriminate the ‘zoo’ animals from the ‘wild’ and ‘privately’ held animals, however, considerable overlap between ‘wild’ and ‘private’ sample groups suggest recent gene flow between wild and privately-owned specimens. Inconsistent tracking of privately held animals makes it difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal acquisition, however the genetic patterns observed demonstrate that genetic markers can be used to elucidate between true captive bred animals in some scenarios. On the basis of our findings in this study, we recommend the implementation of genetic bio-banking for all legally traded wildlife to ensure that claimed captive-bred pedigree relationships can be validated and monitored long-term. These bio-banked samples can then be used to verify captive breeding in traded wildlife.
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The authors would like to thank the zoos (Zoos Victoria and Adelaide Zoo) and all the private holders who provided samples from their snakes for use in this study. Thanks also to the veterinarians who assisted in collection and P. Armstrong for her assistance. This work was initiated by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and funded by the Australian Museum, OEH and BioPlatforms Australia.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Samples collected for this study were done so under a management request from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Samples were ethically collected by a veterinarian. Samples from zoo animals were collected under Zoos Victoria animal ethics permit number ZV15001.
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