The international police agency, Interpol, defines a wildlife crime as the taking, trading, exploiting, or possessing of the world’s wild flora and fauna in contravention of national and international laws. And wildlife crime is big business: the numbers tell the story. Rhino poaching in Africa increased by 7,700 percent between 2009 and 2013; elephant ivory prices jumped 280 percent between 2010 and 2014; and 14.4 tons of pangolin scales were confiscated in Hong Kong in June and July of 2016 alone.
Trafficking is now one of the major threats to wildlife, particularly in Africa and Asia. Reversing this trend will require global cooperation and action on many fronts. One important front is prosecution of poachers and ringleaders of wildlife trafficking networks. But prosecution requires evidence that will stand up in court, which is difficult to gather. That’s where forensic scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Forensics Lab come in. Their job is to find evidence needed for prosecution by linking the victim—a protected species of plant or animal—with a suspect or a crime scene.
Evidence of a wildlife crime can take many forms, but it falls neatly into two categories: eyewitness accounts and physical evidence. Eyewitness accounts are difficult to come by, so prosecutions are often based on physical evidence, which can be anything from blood on a poacher's snare to woven animal hair in a bracelet, feathers in a hat, carved ivory, a snake in a bottle of liquor, or even the wood of an expensive classical guitar. But how do you prove that the woven hair in an African bracelet is from an elephant rather than a domestic animal, or that the blood on a snare is from a protected wildlife species rather than a legally hunted species?
Forensic scientists have been working on these challenges for many years and have come up with a number of clever solutions. One of the key innovations is DNA barcoding, allowing scientists to match any tissue sample to the animal species of origin. This is critically important when the animal part might be difficult to identify, such as meat from a bushmeat market. With poaching and other wildlife crimes on the increase, the USFWS Forensics Lab is growing. California is also getting tough on wildlife crimes, since it has become the second-largest market in the United States for illegally traded ivory products.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW ) is responding by launching their own forensics lab. No one can sit on the sidelines now: we have an important role to play given the diversity of animal species we work with in this fight. We work closely with the USFWS Forensics Lab to provide validated specimens for controls in their morphological and DNA tests. Our Frozen Zoo® has contributed DNA samples to solve cases when requested by wildlife agencies. Some examples are identifying if blood on a knife is from a pig, as claimed by defendants, or from a rhinoceros; whether an infant gorilla is an eastern lowland or mountain gorilla; or pinpointing species identification of pangolins.
Now that CDFW has their own forensics lab, we are assisting them as well. But no one is resting on their laurels—the fight against trafficking goes on. Thank you for being part of that fight. Your donations support these critical efforts and more in the fight against extinction.
Tiger warehouse location credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository