NEW research by Hampshire academics could help combat the illegal trade of pangolins by using the latest fingerprinting techniques.

Pangolins, the only mammals in the world to grow scales, have become the world’s most trafficked wild mammal in recent years. Poaching has increased rapidly to meet the growing demand for their scales for traditional medicines.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have been working to recover finger marks from pangolin scales, and exploring how this could identify poachers.

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Now University of Winchester forensic investigation student Rebecca Barnard is helping the team. The 20-year-old is looking at gel lifts, a technique used to lift finger marks off a non-porous smooth surface.

Hampshire Chronicle: Rebecca BarnardRebecca Barnard (Image: University of Winchester)Third-year student Rebecca said: “I’ve always been passionate about animals and conservation and I’m very interested in wildlife forensics. Pangolins are at serious risk and were at the forefront of my mind when I came to choosing a topic for my dissertation.”

Rebecca’s study focuses on different colour gel lifts - the gel used so far is black and Rebecca will be using not only black but white and clear gel to investigate which gives the best results.

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair, fingernails and rhino horns. Gels are believed to be less harmful to the scales than old-fashioned powders and chemicals used to detect fingerprints.

Traditionally pangolins were poached primarily for bushmeat and their scales were thrown away. However, in the last decade, the prices for scales, skins and the whole animal have soared with Vietnam and China driving demand.

Hampshire Chronicle: Some of the fingerprints Rebecca has been able to lift from the scalesSome of the fingerprints Rebecca has been able to lift from the scales (Image: University of Winchester)SEE ALSO: Hampshire country pub welcomes back former general manager

In Chinese medicine, the scales are used in a wide variety of treatments, including remedies for skin infections and female infertility. Despite their widespread use, no credible scientific evidence suggests the scales have any medicinal properties.

All eight species of pangolin are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the highest level of international law.

Asian pangolins are estimated to have declined by up to 80 per cent in the last 10 years, with more than 850,000 pangolins traded.

Rebecca added: “It would be great if my work could make it easier to identify the people involved in this illegal trade or even act as a deterrent.”