In 2013, a Chinese vessel with over 3,000 frozen pangolins onboard was caught in the Tubbataha Natural Park in Sulu Sea. The pangolins were already processed and their scales were removed, making it hard to identify if they belonged to the endemic Philippine species, Manis culionensis, and if the Chinese fishermen should be prosecuted under the Republic Act No. 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act. The authorities seeked help from experts to identify where the pangolins came from to determine their next course of action. A team from the UP Diliman Institute of Biology (IB) headed by Dr. Ian Kendrich C. Fontanilla came to rescue and with the samples provided, they concluded that the pangolins were only closely related Southeast Asian species.
The case was different in 2016 when their team found out that the 73 pangolin specimens confiscated from illegal traders in Puerto Princesa were indeed Philippine pangolins. In a more recent case, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) brought to the same team some samples of cured meats or “tapa” that were claimed to be from deer and wild pigs and were being sold in the market. This is considered illegal under the RA 9147. Upon their analysis, the meat was found to be just from a domesticated pig.
These cases of illegal wildlife trafficking, misrepresentation and scamming were confirmed, proved and supported by the DNA Barcoding Laboratory (DBL) in IB, which is currently headed by Dr. Fontanilla. In the laboratory, their team generates DNA barcodes for Philippine endemic species to represent them in the growing PH flora and fauna database. DNA barcoding uses a specific gene from an organism’s DNA to easily identify its species designation. Samples are compared to the current contents of the PH database to find out their closest match. This system can be utilized by wildlife law enforcement officers in the rapid identification of traffic specimens, therefore protecting wildlife from exploitation.
The DBL and Dr. Fontanilla have received praises and distinction for their DNA barcoding work, which they started to build up in 2008. “Through this method, we describe the Philippine biodiversity to know what is out there and what we have,” then 46-year-old UP Scientist says.
The DBL has partnered with different government agencies and NGOs including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Philippine Eagle Foundation, and Energy Development Corporation in their DNA barcoding efforts. These partners provide the endemic species samples that they “barcode” and input in the publicly available database.
Dr. Fontanilla’s lab also works with other laboratories from the UP System such as in UP Baguio and UP Los Banos that apply their DNA barcoding method. These laboratories focus on their own specific taxa. He hopes to continue growing the Philippine database of flora and fauna and to achieve this by collaborating with more partners across the country.
As a professor, one of Dr. Fontanilla’s goals is to mentor new doctoral students that would become the Philippines’ new wave of scientists. “We need to encourage more people to enter the field of research because we need it more than ever.” He also expressed his ideals in spreading UP scientists in different institutes as administrators and policy makers to ensure the effective applications of science to society and to easily share their research to those who need it most.