Science & Tech
World's only wildlife forensic CSI lab works to stop poachers
This week, customs agents in Dubai seized elephant ivory tusks that were estimated to be worth more than $4 million dollars.
According to an AP report, the tusks were hidden in a shipment of green beans, which came from an unnamed country in Africa.
Killing elephants for their tusks is not only a brutal and inhumane practice, but it has been illegal since 1989, when a global ban on ivory was put in place.
Illegal poaching of animals and animal parts can include elephant tusks, bear gallbladders, endangered tortoises for soup and rare tigers.
The National U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, is the only lab of its kind, where scientists use highly sophisticated microscopes and forensic equipment that can identify where an animal was raised and how to differentiate if a single hair came from a giraffe’s tail or the face of an Asian Elephant.
The lab uses CSI methods to connect a victim, suspect and crime scene and to help solve murders. But the victims they fight for are not human. The techniques are similar to how FBI labs identify bullets or shell fragments, DNA and fingerprints.
Nonetheless, pathologists often have only bits of teeth, feathers, bone, tissue, hair, fabric or skin to determine cause and manner of the critter’s death.
NWFL supports law enforcement investigations by analyzing evidence submitted in five scientific disciplines: Genetics, criminalistics, morphology, toxicology and pathology.
"In a wildlife crime laboratory your evidence is often a carcass," says Ken Goddard, the lab‘s director. "We get pieces and parts—hides, furs, shoes, purses, ivory carvings and a lot of caviar. When you start getting into the small pieces; strips of leather for watch band, chunks of meat, carvings of ivory, you've lost all those species-defining characteristics that made that evidence obviously from an elephant or a bear, for example."
Furthermore, the lab handles cases from all 50 states and has agreements with 172 Convention on International trade in Endangered Species (CITES)) countries to implement each other’s endangered species laws.
Poaching animals or animal parts for the black market is a very lucrative business and a huge problem that requires international cooperation.
Bear gallbladders for medicinal use could fetch $50,000 in Korea or Taiwan. Elephant ivory is highly prized for use in jewelry, art and carvings.
Occasionally, forensics experts are required to testify in court or do field work, when collecting evidence is deemed to be unusually sensitive or tricky.
"It used to be easy to get away with killing an animal," said Goddard, “Well, things have changed. This laboratory can track you down years later. We can detect a little bit of blood on your clothing invisible to the naked eye and match it back to that killed animal with absolute statistical certainty."
Goddard has been director of the National Forensic Laboratory since it opened in 1989. Goddard is a novelist and former homicide detective.
Goddard said the lab’s most unusual case so far was in 1991, when 300 headless walruses washed onto a coastline in rural Alaska.
Take a virtual tour of the National Forensic Laboratory.
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