USAID and UNESWA support opening of first National Wildlife Laboratory to combat Wildlife Crime in Eswatini
24 May 2023, Kwaluseni Eswatini. It is an exciting time for the wildlife and livestock sector in the country as the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) hosts the first national wildlife laboratory in the country. Led by All Out Africa Foundation, in collaboration with UNESWA, and funded by a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-VukaNow grant has enabled Eswatini to establish the first national wildlife laboratory. This high-technology modern laboratory will support efforts to combat wildlife crime by applying standard international best practices. Its services are also extended to other sectors such as ecological research and livestock management. The opening ceremony was attended by high level dignitaries including representatives from the U.S. Embassy, UNESCO, Big Game Parks, Director of Public Prosecution, Eswatini Environment Authority, Eswatini National Trust Commission, Royal Eswatini Police Services, representatives from Ministries of Agriculture, Education, Home Affairs, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, and other key national stakeholders.
The USAID-supported EWILD Laboratory project was initiated in April 2022 by Dr. Sara Padidar, a molecular biologist from the Department of Biological Sciences at UNESWA. The EWILD Laboratory has cutting edge molecular capacity that will be critical to UNESWA, wildlife law enforcers and the general public. The EWILD Laboratory, established under the leadership of Prof. Themb’alilahlwa Mahlaba, is housed at the Department of Biological Sciences. The laboratory will offer a variety of molecular forensic services including identification of species, identification of individual animals, and various genetic analyses. “If an animal is poached, we can use the sample from its body such as meat or fur to confirm its species as well as the specific individual animal,” explained Dr Padidar, “This is particularly important in wildlife crime cases where there is a need to prove that meat found in possession of a suspect belongs to a wild animal or a protected species rather than to a goat for example”. This level of expert molecular identification was previously unavailable in Eswatini, and had to be done in neighbouring South Africa. The services of the EWILD laboratory is not limited to combatting wildlife crime but can be used by domestic farmers and game reserve owners to monitor their livestock such as provide genetic identification for individual animals, and to check for inbreeding in order to maximise their productivity.
The EWILD team worked closely with international organizations such as Africa Wildlife Forensic Network, TRACE and the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) that have well-established laboratories. This has ensured that the EWILD Laboratory complies with international standards, thus providing clients with accurate and reliable results. The EWILD Laboratory will continue collaborating with these institutions.
On the opening of the new national forensic wildlife laboratory, Mick Reilly of Eswatini’s National Wildlife Authority, Big Game Parks (BGP) extended his relief. “If the protocols and equipment are properly applied, which we believe that they will be, this laboratory will bring relief in the turnaround times for forensic results needed to prove identities of seized wildlife specimens for Eswatini in combatting wildlife crime. This laboratory will mean Eswatini can now conduct forensic investigations locally on poached and illegally trafficked animals rather than the expensive and time-consuming process of shipping samples to neighbouring countries. The successful prosecution of suspects relies on a long chain of collaborative efforts. Shortening the time frames will help to streamline this process and should result in higher prosecution success against poachers. As a wildlife law enforcement agency, BGP anticipates that this laboratory will be very beneficial in helping to reduce the poaching of wildlife, and in protecting our natural heritage”.
In launching the EWILD Laboratory, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador Earl Miller said, “The United States invested over 2.7 million Emalangeni to support and equip the EWILD Laboratory to help combat wildlife crimes and preserve Eswatini’s priceless natural heritage. The launch of Eswatini’s first wildlife forensic laboratory is another great example of the strong partnership between our nations.”
Prof. Ara Monadjem a taxonomist who was also involved in the drafting of the grant proposal said he is happy that UNESWA finally has a molecular laboratory with cutting edge technology that has the capability to do analysis that could not previously be done in-country, which will greatly boost biological research in Eswatini. Prof Monadjem was one of the scientists who recently described a new species of bat, named Neoromicia hlandzeni in October 2022. “When we described the new species of bat, we used molecular identification and this had to be done by international laboratories, even though the bat was found in Eswatini”, said Prof Monadjem, “This new EWILD Laboratory with state-of-the-art molecular equipment means we can now perform analyses that we previously had to do outside the country, which will greatly enhance research and post-graduate training in Eswatini”.