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Scientists unveil new DNA kit designed to thwart wildlife traffickers

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thwart wildlife smugglers

Researchers have developed a portable DNA test designed to help border control officers identify animal and plant species being trafficked through customs checks by wildlife smugglers.

The Lab-in-a-Box portable DNA barcoding kit, developed by the international Barcode of Life (iBoL) project, was unveiled on Monday at Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is home to a number of endangered species targeted by traffickers.

The device is designed to identify plant and animal species by analysing key points on their genome, making the process cheaper and quicker for customs officers in developing countries, who often lack the expertise or resources required to accurately determine the origin of items being transported by wildlife smugglers.

According to the academics who developed the kit, it can identify species within a few hours, potentially preventing genuine wildlife shipments being held up for days while tests are carried out, and allowing border guards to take swift action against suspected traffickers.

Customs officers in developing countries often have trouble identifying animal or plant parts they suspect may have come from endangered species, partly on account of the fact that smugglers go to great lengths to make any contraband they are transporting indistinguishable from permitted items.

As well as stopping endangered species being smuggling out of countries, the kit is intended to combat a range of other wildlife crimes, including the trafficking of invasive species into countries.

Professor Paul Hebert, Founder of the iBOL project and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph in Canada, commented: “We know that many of the species that share our planet are in serious decline – from large vertebrates to small insects, from canopy trees to tiny understory plants.

“By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability, Lab-in-a-Box makes it possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere. It is certain to improve our capacity to care for the species that not only enliven our planet, but provide essential ecosystem services.”

The World Wildlife Fund has warned that the planet is facing a huge spike in wildlife crime, noting that more than 23 metric tons of illicit ivory was seized was seized in just 13 raids in 2011.

In May last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s inaugural World Wildlife Crime Report revealed how the illicit animal trade is causing great harm to the environment and fuelling conflict around the globe.

Animal trafficking has become the fourth most valuable illicit trade on the planet after drugs, people smuggling and weapons, and has attracted the attention of organised criminal gangs and terrorist groups.

According to the World Economic Forum, the trade is worth as much as $23 billion annually.

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Woman arrested in Malaysia for attempting to smuggle heroin hidden in durian fruit

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heroin hidden in durian fruit

Customs officers at a Malaysian airport have arrested a woman for attempting to smuggle 6.13kgs of heroin worth an estimated RM953,529 ($227,900) out of the country concealed inside frozen durian fruits, according to a report from Malaysian state-run news agency Bernama.

Police arrested the 34-year-old woman after border security workers at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Subang found the drug-stuffed fruit hidden among 20 Styrofoam boxes at a cargo centre where it was waiting to be transported to Hong Kong.

Datuk Zulkarnain Mohamed Yusuf, the Central Zone Customs Assistant Director General, said the fruit had been hollowed out before being filled with heroin.

“Four of them were found to contain white lumps of suspected heroin wrapped in translucent plastic inside the fruit,” he said during a press conference at the Kuala Lumpur Customs Complex in Kelana Jaya.

Yusuf said his officers acted after receiving intelligence about the smuggling plot, and moved to arrest the woman suspected of being behind the shipment after her details were found on the shipping manifesto.

The woman, who was remanded in custody for five days on suspicion of drug trafficking, could face the death penalty if she is convicted of attempting to smuggle heroin.

Durian fruit, which is renowned for the pungent aroma it gives off, is popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, and is finding a growing number of admirers in countries including China and Hong Kong.

Earlier this month, FlightGlobal reported that an Air Canada flight was forced to make an emergency landing due to the smell given off by a shipment of durians.

Hiding large consignments of illicit narcotics has become a popular smuggling method among drug traffickers across the globe.

In August, Chinese government-funded news agency Xinhua reported that Bulgarian customs officers had discovered almost 76kgs of cocaine said to be worth nearly $3 million concealed inside a shipment of fruit in the port city of Burgas.

Elsewhere, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced in February that its investigators had found over half a tonne of cocaine estimated to be worth more than $19 million hidden inside a shipment of fresh pineapples that had arrived in Georgia by boat from Colombia.

Spanish investigators last April discovered nine tonnes of cocaine estimated to be worth more than €285 million (£312.7 million) among hundreds of boxes of bananas on a shipping container that arrived from Colombia at Algeciras port.

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US police use sophisticated cryptocurrency tracing techniques to smash world’s largest dark web paedophile film network

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world’s largest dark web paedophile film network

US prosecutors have charged a South Korean man with running the world’s largest dark web distribution network for indecent images of children, according to a statement from the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

Jong Woo Son, 23, has also been charged and convicted in South Korea, where he is currently serving jail time for the crimes of which he stands accused in the US.

The Welcome to Video website, which is reported to have hosted more than 250,000 indecent videos featuring minors that users had downloaded more than one million times, charged paedophiles for access to abuse material using cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

Despite Son’s concerted efforts to avoid being discovered by law enforcement authorities, investigators were able to trace the server he used to host the site through sophisticated cryptocurrency tracking techniques.

An additional 337 site users were arrested across the US as well as in country’s including the UK, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Brazil and Australia.

As well as the arrest of users of the site, the operation to close down the three-year old paedophile film network also led to the rescue of least 23 child victims of abuse in the US, Spain and the UK.

Son was arrested in March last year in South Korea in an operation that resulted in the seizure some eight terabytes of child sexual exploitation material, which the DoJ said was one of the largest such discoveries of its kind.

Specialists at the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) examined the material and found the site contained over 250,000 unique videos, 45% of which featured new images that had not been previously known to exist.

The website offered access to this content in exchange for payment in Bitcoin.

Analysis of the server that hosted Welcome to Video revealed that the site had more than one million Bitcoin addresses, suggesting it had the capacity for at least one million users.

Commenting on the shutdown of the site, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Acting Executive Associate Director Alysa Erichs said: “Children are our most vulnerable population, and crimes such as these are unthinkable.

“Sadly, advances in technology have enabled child predators to hide behind the dark web and cryptocurrency to further their criminal activity.

“However, today’s indictment sends a strong message to criminals that no matter how sophisticated the technology or how widespread the network, child exploitation will not be tolerated in the United States.

“Our entire justice system will stop at nothing to prevent these heinous crimes, safeguard our children, and bring justice to all.”

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Two men charged with poaching offences after investigators in Florida seize 600 turtles

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investigators in Florida seize 600 turtles

Authorities in Florida have charged two men suspected of illegally selling more than 4,000 turtles over on six-month period with poaching offences.

The suspects were arrested after officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) were handed intelligence in February last year that a ring of wildlife traffickers was poaching native species of turtle before selling them to reptile dealers and illegal distributors.

The animals would then be shipped overseas to be sold on the black market.

During a raid that led to the men’s arrest, FWC investigators seized more than 600 live turtles, as well as the skull and shell of a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which is an endangered species.

The FWC said the species the men stand accused of poaching and selling include Florida box turtles, Eastern box turtles, striped mud turtles, Florida mud turtles, chicken turtles, Florida softshell turtles, Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles, spotted turtles and diamondback terrapins.

The turtles seized during the operation, which had an estimated black-market value of $200,000, were returned to their natural environment, with almost 300 becoming part of a long-term monitoring project led by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

In a statement on its website, the FWC said the turtles the men sold were offered for a wholesale price of $300 each, but could fetch as much as $10,000 on the Asian black market.

Over the course of just one month, the men are thought to have sold turtles estimated to be worth some $60,000.

Dr Craig Stanford, Chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, said: “We know that the global black market in live animals includes traffickers smuggling protected species of turtles out of the United States, usually for export to the Asian pet market.

“This sinister and illegal trade threatens the future of many species of North American animals, and as one of the most threatened animal groups on the planet, turtles are at the forefront of our concern.”

In July of last year, a US court fined two Chinese flight attendants $5,500 each and ordered them to leave America within 72 hours after they were found guilty of attempting to smuggle dozens of spotted and box turtles in carry-on luggage from Los Angeles to China.

The China Eastern Airlines cabin crew members were arrested while passing through Los Angeles International Airport after border guards found 31 live spotted turtles and 14 live box turtles hidden inside pillowcases and plastic bags in their luggage.

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