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Forensics is Boosting the Battle Against Wildlife Trade

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Technical progress in human forensics — genetic, spectrographic, chemical, analytical — has spilled over into wildlife and plant forensics and research. In 2013, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) recognized the importance of wildlife forensics, and in September, at the most recent CITES meeting in Johannesburg, forensics hit the mainstream. Several conference workshops and NGO seminars sought to teach airport officials and police different wildlife forensic techniques, such as how to take tissue samples, gather intelligence, and use genetic evidence. The parties also passed a resolution that encourages CITES members to create and maintain reference collections of wood samples that forensic scientists might use when analyzing wood they suspect has been illegally traded. Experts also presented the first-ever global survey of wildlife forensic labs. 

Until recently, wildlife crime investigators largely focused on seizing contraband, identifying the species in a seized shipment, and prosecuting those caught red-handed — usually poachers lower down the criminal food chain. 

The developing science of wildlife forensics, however, makes it possible for investigators to perform tests that were just dreams a decade or two ago.

Separating out genetic and chemical markers from physical samples such as rhino horn or a piece of rosewood, forensic scientists can often tell the age of the sample, exactly where the animal or plant came from, what its parentage might be, and how this relates to other seized shipments. Sometimes, forensic scientists can even shed light on the structure of the criminal networks behind the trade by showing where poached animals and plants are killed, and what ports are used to transport them. 

In recent years, trade in endangered wildlife has soared. Some scientists estimate that 40,000 African elephants are killed for their tusks each year, nearly 10 percent of the estimated wild population of 400,000. Only 5,000 black rhinos and 3,900 tigers remain in the wild. Rhino poaching deaths have quadrupled since 2010. And those are just the most charismatic of the thousands of illegally traded species: Proboscis monkeys, rosewood, pangolin (an armadillo-like mammal), and many others suffer similar pressures. 

In many countries where endangered wildlife is poached or traded, forensics is just beginning to gain traction. Experts universally lament the lack of funding, equipment, and international cooperation. But there are hopeful cases that show how the field could have a profound impact. 

“[There is] still insufficient capacity for conducting wildlife forensic casework, particularly in regions with the greatest need for the identification of CITES-listed species in trade,” the report states. 

The review, prepared by the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, tallied 110 questionnaire responses from 39 countries. The investigators found that only one-third of labs cooperated internationally, only one half operated according to any quality assurance standard, only one-quarter reported being involved in actual legal cases, and only six wildlife forensic labs in the world have been audited by any external accrediting agency. 

The report does point out that standardization in the field remains in its infancy, and expresses hope that these numbers will increase in the next five years. But many issues — data sharing, lab and sample collecting standards, budgets — need to be worked out for wildlife forensics to reach its potential, experts say. 

In 2013, CITES formally urged countries seizing elephant tusk shipments of more than half a ton to turn over samples within 90 days. 

“At this stage we receive samples several months or years after seizure and the matches are merely a matter of interest and to give an indication of the movement of the products, rather than evidence in prosecutions,” says Cindy Harper, director of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory that manages the rhODIS database at the University of Pretoria. She said it was vital to rapidly link all wildlife product seizures with international databases. 

In the last five years, many countries have begun to invest in wildlife forensic labs, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Botswana, Kenya, and South Africa. The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science now has approximately 150 members in 60 labs around the world, and has begun to circulate an international test for certifying laboratories.

Meanwhile, new methods are coming out of forensic labs all the time. 

A new technique presented at the last CITES meetings enables law enforcement officials to measure isotopes in ivory, dating the age of seized tusks. Atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s released carbon-14 that was taken up by plants worldwide. That carbon-14 remains, gradually decreasing by a known amount each year. When elephants eat plants, some of that carbon-14 travels to their tusks, and scientists can pinpoint the year of an animal’s death by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a tusk. If a tusk dates from after 1989 — when the global ivory trade was banned — it’s probably illegal. Though this method has been used in a few cases, it is not widespread. 


Story from Yale University. Original piece written by Heather Millar. Please note: The content above may have been edited to ensure it is in keeping with Technology Networks’ style and length guidelines.