4th International Meeting of the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science
Written by Brandt Cassidy, Ph.D.   

Scientists from more than 30 countries convened in Edinburgh, Scotland June 5, 2017 to present their successes and struggles in the field of Wildlife Forensics Science. Often called the “Silent Witnesses," crimes committed against animals and plants alike often lead to population reductions to the point of extinction. Law enforcement and crime labs face many challenges in the prosecution of criminals in the illegal killing, capture, transport, and trade of a host of animal and plant species.

Seized Carved illegal Rhinoceros horn. Photo: National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab

Each region of the world has its own unique organisms that are preyed upon by criminals for financial gain. The threat to many species is simply due to human greed and folly. Examples such as the possession of a rhino horn as a status symbol, powdered horn consumed for strength and virility, and pangolin scales used as a medical cure for a host of ailments all fuel the fire, leading to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of animals, resulting in the crises we have today.

This year’s Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) meeting emphasized the need for collaboration leading to the successful prosecution of illegal international wildlife traffickers. Scientists, together with a wide range of government agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs), and industry stakeholders came together to build and strengthen their relationships. The list of collaborators fighting wildlife crime is long and includes organizations such as TRACE (Tools and Resources for Applied Conservation and Enforcement, http://www.tracenetwork.org/), TRAFFIC (http://www.traffic.org/), Interpol, UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, https://www.unodc.org/), SWFS (The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science, https://www.wildlifeforensicscience.org/), USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/), NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://www.noaa.gov/) and government crime labs across the globe.

International cooperation between agencies is required to identify individuals who have established routes for the perpetration of their crimes in a systematic and organized manner. The sharing of information between countries and continents has lead to the seizure of large shipments of African ivory and pangolin scales in the Far East and the apprehension of the criminals organized in Africa indiscriminately killing or capturing animals for their trade.

Seized illegal elephant ivory. Photo: National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab

The smuggling of protected species attached to a person’s body or in their luggage has yielded seizures at customs points of entry that include birds and bird eggs from hyacinth macaws, rare parrots and hummingbirds, exotic tortoises and turtles, protected snakes and lizards, endangered tropical fish species, even a baby Asiatic black bear. In most of these cases morphological characteristics are used to accurately identify the contraband. This is not the case when processed products are smuggled that contain dried or powdered remains of protected species. Even recognizing replicas or substitutes of some smuggled items like bear gallbladders verses pig gallbladders can be challenging without molecular methods of identification.

One of the biggest challenges faced stems from the need to uniquely identify each of a wide variety of species. The list is far too long to publish here but you could start with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I, II, and III. There are hundreds of species generally categorized under mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, sharks, fishes, arthropods, insects, and plants (cactus to trees) on the list requiring protection under the law. Evidence in wildlife crimes is as varied as the species we are trying to identify. Some highly creative techniques have to be employed to support the prosecution of perpetrators of wildlife crimes.

Seized illegal wood products. Photo: National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab

Researchers and crime labs have fought back through the developing new methods for the detection and identification of many species of plants and animals. The illegal logging of protected timber species is a billion dollar global enterprise that can destroy whole forests. One new technology, called “Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART),” coupled to time-of-flight mass spectroscopy (TOFMS) allows for the development of a unique chemical spectral analysis fingerprint of protected timber species. Referenced libraries of these species arranged geographically make it possible to quickly identify protected species to identify illegally harvested wood.

Tremendous effort has been expended to try and reduce the rate at which the African elephant and rhinoceros are being killed. Novel DNA-based methods for elephant species identification from ivory and ivory products have been developed. Three DNA-based methods (real-time PCR with melt curve analysis, PCR-capillary electrophoresis, and a multiplex SNP assay) have been validated for the simultaneous authentication of ivory and its species origin. Armed with this information law enforcement agencies can focus their efforts in areas where the contraband originated to protect vulnerable populations and catch the criminals. Validated radiocarbon dating techniques are being used to establish the age of the ivory or rhino horn material to refute claims that the illegal material is not from modern times and therefore legal to possess.

Seized illegal feathered artifact. Photo: National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab

Two groups in Australia are developing a portable odor-profiling device that can be used by frontline personnel to rapidly identify the species of wildlife contraband at the point of seizure. Using volatile organic compound (VOC) analysis via solid-phase microextraction (SPME) and comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography-time-of-flight mass spectrometry (GCxGC-TOFMS) a range of wildlife species can be quickly and accurately identified. With the advent of massively parallel DNA sequencing, several high quality reference DNA databases are being assembled for mammals, fish, and bird species. Mitochondrial DNA genomes from targeted species within a geographic region are being used to accurately identify protected species and prosecute those caught trafficking these species.

Enforcement agencies are having a difficult time keeping illegal hunting in check because much of the activity is conducted in remote rural areas. Often, only the rotting remains of a carcass missing its trophy or valuable parts, or a clear-cut forest area remain as witnesses to the crime. The critical effort of all of the people involved in the protection of the diversity of species on this planet is to educate the people who support this criminal industry through their purchase of illegally trafficked species.

There are so many ways the trafficking of nonnative species can affect an entire continent. The release of a nonnative species could quickly displace native species or become an uncontrollable pest. Introduction of diseases from foreign countries can also decimate native species and disrupt the delicate balance of an entire ecosystem. Programs designed to educate individuals about these concerns have helped to reduce the demand for live animals and increased the public’s awareness and support for efforts to stop the illegal trade industry by reporting suspicious activity to the authorities.

One question remained central to our discussions: “Are we making a difference?” Despite being spread thinly across the globe, a lack of funding, working through complex systems and enforcing laws that may seem inconsistent or in conflict with indigenous peoples way of life, wildlife forensic practitioners, working in concert with governments and international organizations, are having a positive impact on the survival of the world’s most iconic and endangered species.

Join us in 2019, in Denver, Colorado, for the 5th International meeting of the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science for the latest information on the impact our efforts are having. Learn about the recovery of some species and new technologies utilized to catch the perpetrators of wildlife crime.

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