Tree fingerprinting helps track illegal logging

By Jessica Campion 12 July 2011
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DNA fingerprinting of timber will help to make sure protected forests are not illegally logged.

DNA FINGERPRINTING IS AN invaluable crime-fighting tool for humans and, more recently wildlife, and now the same concept is being applied to help ring bark illegal logging.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide and a Singapore company have developed DNA testing technology that can assess whether or not a wood product is derived from a sustainable plantation or, illegally, from a protected area.

By extracting a DNA fingerprint from a timber product, researchers can trace and match the samples from wood-chips, timber decking, or furniture back to the forest they came from.
An estimated 10 per cent of wood imports to Australia are suspected of being logged from areas outside agreed environmental controls and the federal government is currently drafting new legislation to combat illegal logging inside the country.

DNA cannot be falsified

Professor Andrew Lowe, director of the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity at the University of Adelaide researcher, says the technology could be an effective verification method in the timber industry.

“The advancement of genetics technologies means that large-scale screening of wood-DNA can be done cheaply, routinely, quickly and with a statistical certainty that can be used in a court of law – certification documents can be falsified, but DNA cannot.”

DNA identification and tracing techniques have been proven effective in the management of illegal trade in the animal world and Dr Maurizio Rossetto from the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust in NSW, says DNA fingerprinting and tracking technologies could work with similar success in the timber trade.

“DNA tracking and barcoding has worked in tracking the trade of animals so the potential in the timber trade is huge,” Maurizio says.

“In Japan, whale meat traders are intercepted and prosecuted if they are found with rare species or species not allowed to be traded. In Australia, the technology has been used for prosecuting the illegal trade of all highly collectable species, like wild black cockatoos in Western Australia, and for the identification of tradable plant species like orchids and cycads.”

Australian timber industry representatives, including Bunnings and Simmonds lumber, are already using the DNA technology and were the first in the world to start tracking timber in 2007.

Environmental groups rejoice

The technology also has the backing of a number of environmental groups, including Greenpeace.

“Greenpeace has been working towards a ban on illegal timber imports for nearly 10 years, and we’re excited we’re so close to new laws that could stop illegal timber coming into Australia,” Reece Turner, forests campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, says.

“The Government needs to acknowledge the important technology that Australian scientists have pioneered and provide more support because DNA tracking could play key roles in tackling illegal logging.”

Environmental protection and consumer-awareness group, Markets for Change, is making a public push for Australian retailers to make sure products they sell are from sustainable timber sources.
The group has name and shamed 30 of Australia’s top retailers for contributing to the destruction of Australian forests by selling products made from protected timber.

Retailer Harvey Norman was one company the group accused of using wood from protected Australian forests in their products. Gerry Harvey, Harvey Norman Chairman, responded by saying the retailer does its best to use timber from plantations but that sometimes illegal wood slips through the current timber certification system.