DNA testing could be used as a tool to help fight smuggling of endangered chimpanzees, according to a study published this week in the journal BMC Ecology.

Although they are still the most common apes in Africa, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes and their related subspecies) have experienced population drops of around 75 percent in the past 30 years, and are listed as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Much of this decline is because of poachers and smuggling. A live chimpanzee can fetch $20,000 on the international black market. The animals are also often victims of the bushmeat trade.

Whereas wild chimpanzee populations plummet, more and more chimps end up in rescue and rehabilitation centers, such as Limbe Wildlife Center (LWC) in Cameroon. But the path taken before a chimpanzee ends up at a rescue center is long and convoluted, leaving few, if any, clues as to where in Africa the animal was first captured.

The new study may help provide answers as to where these rescued chimpanzees came from, and therefore identify poacher hunting patterns and smuggling routes so they can be targeted and shut down by authorities.

The study, a collaboration between the LWC and the University at Albany, State University of New York, examined the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and microsatellite (STRP, or short tandem repeat polymorphic marker) genotypes of 46 chimpanzees from LWC, then compared it with geo-referenced chimpanzee samples from 10 locations throughout Cameroon and Nigeria. The team found that the chimpanzees came from throughout Cameroon, suggesting that smuggling is rife throughout the country and not all done internationally as previously believed.

The tests also found that most of the chimps at LWC were Nigeria–Cameroon chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes vellerosus), the most endangered of the four common chimpanzee subspecies.

The results indicate that "international smuggling is less of a problem than local trade," lead scientist Mary Katherine Gonder of the University at Albany said in a prepared statement. "The problem seems to occur throughout Cameroon, with some rescued chimps even coming from protected areas." Within Cameroon, a live chimpanzee sells for $100, far below the international black market price, but still a tempting amount for residents of the economically challenged country.

Gonder and her co-authors say this study is just the first step, and are now calling for "a broader sample of rescued chimpanzees compared against a more comprehensive grid of geo-referenced samples" in the hopes of revealing what they call "hot spots" of chimpanzee hunting and smuggling routes in Cameroon.

Image: Chimpanzee, via Stock.xchng