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Forensic Science International: Genetics
Volume 58, 2022, 102663

Coral-ID: A forensically validated genetic test to identify precious coral material and its application to objects seized from illegal traffic

Bertalan Lendvaya,b, Laurent E. Cartierb, Federica Costantinic, Nozomu Iwasakid

Zurich Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190/52, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland.

Abstract

The production and trade of objects manufactured from the skeletal axis of coralid precious corals is a historically, culturally and economically important global industry. Coralids are members of the diverse Coralliidae family, which contains several species complexes and morphospecies. For most precious coral found in the jewelry trade, the color remains the sole clue and link to the taxonomic identity of the individual. Different coralid species have however similar or overlapping colors resulting in difficulty to taxonomically identify jewelry objects, including four species listed by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) whose international transport and trade requires species-specific and country of origin documentation. We aimed at developing a reliable method to taxonomically identify coralid material with the objective of distinguishing CITES protected species from their non-protected counterparts. We present Coral-ID, a genetic assay to taxonomically classify coralid objects using quasi non-destructive sampling. The assay classifies the analyzed sample in one of six taxonomic categories and performs at least presumptive separation of CITES-listed and non-listed species in all cases. Developmental validation experiments prove that Coral-ID is a specific, accurate and very sensitive method. As the first attempt to randomly sample corals in the trade to identify them, we applied Coral-ID on 20 precious coral objects seized by custom authorities upon import to in Switzerland. Thirteen (65%) of these samples could be analyzed; three of these were found to be presumptively CITES-listed, and 10 of them have proven to originate from non-CITES-listed species.

Keywords: Coralliidae, Species identification, Gemology, Wildlife forensics, DNA sequencing, Forensic validation.

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