To help protect the nation’s forests and guard against illegal logging, the government has established a DNA database for Taiwan cypress and Taiwan cedar trees, Minister of Justice Tsai Ching-hsiang (蔡清祥) said at a news briefing in Taipei yesterday.
The database would enable authorities to identify a particular species, and facilitate prosecution and conviction of illegal logging activities, Tsai said at the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau (MJIB) office.
The project is the product of a four-year collaboration between the MJIB, the Forestry Bureau and Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Research Center, he added.
“In the past, ‘mountain rats,’ when caught, always claimed that they had only cut down ordinary trees, and not a protected species. Now we can make a positive identification through the database to rebut their claims and bring them to justice,” Tsai said.
A “mountain rat” refers to an individual or group engaged in illegal logging for profit.
“It is not easy to find these mountain rats, as they lurk in remote locations, in difficult terrains in the mountains. Law-enforcement agents cannot spend long periods to track them down,” MJIB Director-General Leu Wen-jong (呂文忠) said.
“It is important to protect Taiwan’s unique species of cypress, cedar and other valuable hardwood trees, and we need science and technology to help us identify materials seized at the crime scene, present this evidence in court and prosecute the offenders,” Leu added.
The project was started in 2017, with extensive work by Forestry Bureau field teams, collecting 600 tree samples in the mountains, focusing on Taiwan cypress and Taiwan cedar, which are classified as protected species under the Forestry Act (森林法), Leu said.
“It is like compiling a fingerprint database for these protected trees and giving them an identification card. The work is ongoing, with more DNA samples being added in the coming years to boost the database’s accuracy in DNA matching,” he added.
Pointing to wood samples confiscated from “mountain rats” during MJIB raids, officials said that DNA genomes from hardy plants have good preservation property.
DNA extracted from driftwood, dead trees cut down many years ago and decomposing trees can be used for identification, and even pinpoint the original location of the tree, they said.
“We will be able to tell then where the illegal logging took place, verify the location and present the evidence in court to get a conviction. This can help us to crack down on these criminal groups, safeguard Taiwan’s forests and protect the environment,” Leu said.
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