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New 'litmus paper test' for dolphin meat sparks arrests in Taiwan

Last Thursday, Taiwanese coastguards announced the arrest of a couple at their home in the southern county of Yunlin and the seizure of 820 kilograms (1,800 pounds) of dolphin meat which they described as their biggest haul so far this year. The accused claim to have acquired the meat from a supplier in the north and admitted to having already sold 120 kilograms (265 pounds)  to restaurants.  Arrested under Taiwan’s wildlife protection laws, they face up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 1.5 million Taiwan dollars (US$50,000) if convicted.

This case is  particularly significant as, only a few weeks ago, Taiwan announced the introduction of a new on-the-spot litmus paper test for suspicious meat.  Officials trained in using this new biotechnology were able to determine that the seized meat was indeed dolphin. Whales and dolphins have been legally protected in Taiwanese waters since 1989, but poachers have often attempted to avoid prosecution by mislabeling meat or cutting the heads off hunted dolphins or whales to prevent species identification.

The Taiwanese government financed the development of this new test which is designed to be activated by the unique structure of a protein in whales and dolphins – and delivers a result in as little as 10 minutes. The test will supplement existing DNA analysis which is more rigorous but can take up to five days to return results.

At the moment, the ‘trade off’ for obtaining such rapid results means that it is only possible to determine whether the meat comes from a whale or dolphin (rather than another species yielding similar-looking  red meat) and there will still be a requirement in some cases for formal DNA analysis in order to learn which  whale or dolphin species or population was involved.

However, WDC welcomes this new technology as an important step forward in efforts to stamp out illegal trade in whale and dolphin meat. By enabling officials to rapidly identify the presence of whale or dolphin products, they can make arrests, confiscate suspicious consignments and close off sales outlets without losing valuable time.