U.S. "Animal Detectives" Fight Crime in Forensics Lab

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Within the "Park" the heads of hundreds of creatures hang on chicken wire mesh on the wall. Full-size stuffed animals, looking like they escaped from museum dioramas, stand scattered around the floor. Drawers are crammed full with parts, pelts, bones, ivory and feathered wings.

Tiger Bone Potions, Rhino Horn Pills

"When you walk in the door you see hundreds and hundreds of heads staring at you—species from all over the world," Goddard says. "It is macabre and fascinating all at the same time."

The Forensics Park collection, mostly specimens donated by zoos after the animals died, helps the scientists determine the authenticity of illegally traded animal products.

"I see an awful lot of fakery in wildlife forensics," says Bonnie Yates, a senior forensics scientist at the lab. When it comes to traditional restorative products and aphrodisiacs many pills and potions bare little in common with their label.

Chinese medicines provide a particularly intriguing category of evidence. "Things like tiger bone potions and rhino horn pills—they are almost always fake," says Goddard.

Given that a rhino horn can fetch $75,000 on the black market, faking the powers and potions is easy—especially since nobody but a scientist could detect the switch.

Occasionally the scientists have discovered that species that are declared new are actually hoaxes.

"This little guy is one of the best fakes yet," says Yates. "It is a mouse deer of the genius Tragulus, but mouse deer don't have antlers. We took an X-ray of this one and found they are little antlers that have been dyed red and then carved into a hole that has been drilled into the head of this little mummified mouse deer."

Poaching Gets Tougher

Yates speculates that the discovery of a new type species of deer in Vietnam in the late 1990s inspired some innovative locals to keeps the supply of new species flowing—even if it involved building them with drills and glue.

Forensics scientists use hair and feather samples to link an animal to the crime scene. They can also use the same analytical techniques to tie a human suspect to the crime. Ballistic comparisons and fingerprints play a role in tracking outlaws. DNA examinations are evidence in about 15-20 percent of cases.

"If a hunter washes his clothes after he has been on an illegal hunt, then I might be able to find hair in the dryer lint and so I'll mount the hair from the dyer lint and I'll take one of my comparative standards," says Yates.

Goddard has a word of warning for anybody who might commit a crime against a creature.

"It used to be easy to get away with killing an animal," he says. "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."

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