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

Michelle Pahl
for National Geographic Today
April 2, 2003
 
Admirers call it "the wild world's Scotland Yard" whose scientists are "animal detectives."

Crimes against wildlife include illegal hunting, trafficking in endangered species, and producing and selling products made from endangered or threatened species. The task of sleuthing and solving these crimes falls to a federal laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.

The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is the only lab in the world dedicated to solving wildlife crimes. The lab's mission is to provide forensic support for wildlife managers and investigators thus stopping criminals and protecting animals—often endangered species.

The lab works with federal agents, the 50 State Fish-and-Game commissions and the roughly 155 countries that are signatories to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—that oversees trade in wild plants and animals.


Every year the lab—currently a team of 33—handles about 900 cases.

"In a wildlife crime laboratory your evidence is often a carcass," says Ken Goddard, director of the lab since it opened in 1989, a former homicide detective in San Bernardino County, California and a prolific thriller novelist whose eighth novel "Outer Perimeter" was published by Bantam Books in 2001.

"We get pieces and parts—hides, furs, shoes, purses, ivory carvings, a lot of caviar," says Goddard. "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 (for example)."

Forensics Park

The job of the lab is to determine the species source and analyze forensic evidence that could link it to a violation of wildlife law—and a human suspect. Occasionally the job requires forensics experts to testify in court or venture into the field when collecting the evidence is tricky. A particularly unusual case, says Goddard, occurred in 1991 when 300 headless walruses washed up on the Alaska coastline.

Caviar samples represent about one third of the lab's caseload. During the last three years, federal agents have seized about $180 million worth of caviar, inundating the lab with samples for testing.

The lab is always cautious when accepting new samples from public sources. "Our work annoys a lot of people, from organized crime/the Russian Mafia to caviar connoisseurs and even to the fashion trade," Goddard says. Though they have not received any dangerous packages, threatening phones calls are not uncommon.

To identify the species of a victim, the lab maintains what the scientists call, "Forensics Park," a warehouse of stuffed animals and animal parts—hides, claws, teeth, feathers—to serve as references to help identify creatures. There are 5000 complete, or almost complete, animals in the collection and more than 30,000 blood and tissue samples.

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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