Wildlife forensics (Forensic Science)
Forensic examination of wildlife-related evidence became crucial during the late twentieth century because of increased governmental awareness worldwide of the poaching and smuggling of endangered and protected species. As demand for exotic pets and animal goods led wildlife traders to expand their trafficking activities and populations of some species dwindled, the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) established uniform criteria for global enforcement of laws protecting vulnerable species. The United States enforced the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and forbade importation of Asian elephant ivory beginning in 1976 and African elephant ivory starting in 1989. Scholarly articles featuring wildlife forensics appeared in journals such as Forensic Science International and in conference proceedings.
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Establishing Resources (Forensic Science)
Before the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory was established in 1989, approximately 90 percent of wildlife poachers in the United States were not punished because evidence of their crimes was unavailable unless game wardens had witnessed their actions. Law-enforcement personnel needed scientific evidence that they could present in court if they were going to be able to prosecute crimes committed against wildlife. Most forensics laboratories did not pursue investigations related to wildlife crimes.
In 1979, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired Ken Goddard to serve as the agency’s chief forensic investigator. Goddard, a biochemist who had worked in law-enforcement crime laboratories, applied his experience and expertise to the apprehension of poachers. He requested that the U.S. government establish a wildlife forensics laboratory so that he could perform his work more effectively. The result, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, became the sole laboratory investigating wildlife crimes in the United States and globally.
Serving as director of the laboratory, Goddard recruited a staff of scientists who specialized in morphology, pathology, criminalistics, and toxicology. Differentiating between police forensic work, which focuses on one species, and wildlife forensic investigations, which may involve thousands of species, the National Fish and Wildlife...
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Scientific Investigations (Forensic Science)
For the forensic scientists at the wildlife laboratory, a case begins when a sample arrives and is cataloged. Wildlife forensic evidence takes varied forms, from entire carcasses to pieces of bone; it may include dried fluids, pelts, raw meat, and products made from animal materials. Morphologists evaluate specimens to identify their species; this work sometimes requires comparisons with samples from known species in the laboratory’s collection. The scientists frequently use scanning electron microscopes to scrutinize samples for structures to determine species. Species identification clarifies whether or not the animal is legally protected; crocodiles, for example, are a protected species, whereas alligators are not.
Serologists analyze blood samples, using mass spectrometry to weigh hemoglobin protein molecules to identify species. Genetic fingerprinting is useful when bloodstains at scenes or on poachers’ clothing are the sole available evidence. Investigators may use DNA analysis to connect the body parts of an animal recovered in separate locations. Wildlife forensic investigators also compare saw marks, such as on antlers and heads, to match severed wildlife pieces. DNA analysis may also be used to associate meat with a crime scene. Forensic scientists can determine whether poached animals were born in the wild or captively bred, as some hunters claim, if the DNA of the animals’ alleged parents is...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Espinoza, Edgard O’Niel, and Mary-Jacque Mann. Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes. 3d ed. Baltimore: World Wildlife Fund, 2000. Describes forensic techniques for differentiating ivory specimens originating from elephants and other animals.
Jackson, Donna M. The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature. Photographs by Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Features the techniques used in the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory’s investigation of the 1993 poaching of an elk in Yellowstone National Park.
Knight, Jonathan. “Cops and Poachers.” New Scientist, January 22, 2000, 40-43. Article about Goddard emphasizes the importance of species identification for wildlife forensic evidence.
Luoma, Jon R. “The Wild World’s Scotland Yard.” Audubon 102 (November/December, 2000): 72-80. Presents a detailed account of the achievements of the scientists at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.
Repanshek, Kurt. “Tracking Poachers with Forensic Science.” Technology Review 98 (August/September, 1995): 22-23. Focuses on technological applications developed to prove wildlife crimes.
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Wildlife Forensics (World of Forensic Science)
Wildlife forensics is a relatively new field of criminal investigation. Its goals are to use scientific procedures to examine, identify, and compare evidence from crime scenes, and to link this evidence with a suspect and a victim, which is specifically an animal. Killing wild animals that are protected from hunting by laws, also called poaching, is one of the most serious crimes investigated by wildlife forensic
The international organization that monitors trade in wild animals and plants is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was established in 1963 and, as of 2004, includes 167 member countries. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act, which was authorized in 1973, protects endangered and threatened species and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has the authority to prosecute violations against protected species. Trent University in Ontario, Canada houses one of the largest wildlife DNA forensics departments in North America, incorporating an extremely active research facility.
The types of evidence analyzed by a wildlife forensics lab include any part of an animal including blood and tissue samples, carcasses, hair, teeth, bones, claws, talons, tusks, hides, fur, feathers, or
One of the most critical problems facing wildlife forensic scientists is identifying a particular species from crime scene evidence. For example, wildlife forensic scientists may have to distinguish if a piece of leather on a watchband is made from a protected animal, like an elephant or a zebra, or if it comes from a non-protected animal, like a cow or a horse. They must be able to determine if a medicinal powder contains the pulverized remains of a protected animal, like a rhinoceros, a tiger, or coral. They must be able to differentiate between the roe of protected fish from farm-raised caviar.
A variety of scientific techniques allow wildlife forensic scientists to answer these types of questions. Techniques similar to those used in a police crime lab are used to identify and analyze parts of animals as well as bullets, shot casings, paint chips, soil, and fibers found at the crime scene. Experts in fingerprinting, ballistics, soil analysis, and hair comparisons examine evidence visually and with microscopic techniques. Pathologists examine carcasses for wounds in order to determine how the animal died and to distinguish natural death from human killing. Experts in the morphology, or the form, of animals can identify the species, and sometimes subspecies, of animals found at crime scenes. They can often determine the age and sex of animals as well as the time-since-death by careful observations of feathers, skulls and skeletons. Chemists may be asked to identify poisons and pesticides, characterize the contents of Asian medicines, and provide species identification, when possible. Molecular biologists use protein and DNA analyses to provide information about the identity of a sample. Genetics can be particularly useful when the sample is very small or unidentifiable from its morphology. Some answers that genetic tests may provide include identification of species, characterization of the familial relationships between animals, and evaluation of two different samples in order to determine if they originated from the same individual. In addition, geneticists may be able to provide environmental information about an animal.
Examples of criminal cases in which wildlife forensics have been used are extensive, but a few examples illustrate the importance of this field. A large proportion of the cases in the United States involve trafficking in fake caviar or caviar that is illegal to import. One man, who owned a caviar company in New York, sold the eggs of the American paddlefish, a protected species that lives in the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, as caviar. DNA testing by wildlife forensic scientists verified that the roe was not Russian Sevruga, as labeled, but from the paddlefish. He was sentenced to two years in jail and fined $100,000. His company was additionally fined $110,000. In Wyoming, six carcasses of pronghorn antelope were discovered in a pit. The heads were removed, but no meat was taken. After a suspect was apprehended, wildlife forensic scientists were able to match DNA from the skulls of antelope in his custody to the DNA in the carcasses. The man was fined, served time in jail and his hunting license was suspended. In 1991, the sale of wild red drum (a fish) was banned in the state of Texas, however farm-raised red drum may still be sold legally. Using chemical assays to distinguish between the types of fats found in wild and farm-raised red drum, forensic scientists were able to identify the origin of red drum in the marketplace. Eventually, poaching rings were infiltrated and violators prosecuted in court. In 1998, an Iowa hunter returned from a safari to Africa with the skull of a brown hyena that he had shot. The brown hyena is an endangered species and after the man bragged about his kill, local wildlife agents seized the skull. Wildlife experts used morphology, comparing the skull to a series of hyena skulls, to identify the skull as illegal. The hunter was fined and his hunting license was revoked worldwide.
SEE ALSO DNA banks for endangered animals; DNA fingerprint; Fingerprint; Hair analysis; Paint analysis; Pathology; Soils.