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In Defense of Wildlife
April 16, 2015

Two men holding up tusk with piles of tusks around them (Thinkstock)
Ivory seized from the illegal wildlife trade (Thinkstock)

At a laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, carved chalices, dagger handles and ornate jewelry await inspection. They arrive in packages sealed with tamper-proof red tape, instead of the molten wax of days gone by. They are dispersed down a long white corridor to 14 scientists.

The skilled teams try to uncover the narrative of killings, determining who the victims were, how they died, where, when and at whose hands — only they do it with fur, feathers, tusks and claws, some of which have become objects of art.

The wildlife trade is one of the world’s oldest forms of currency, but today’s wildlife poaching and trafficking have expanded into a more serious business. One of the most lucrative of transnational crimes, it generates revenues conservatively estimated as high as $19 billion a year. Countless species have been hunted to the brink of extinction, from turtles to tigers. Populations are further imperiled by habitat loss and ecosystem damage stemming from illegal logging and development pressures.

A 2014 global operation spanning 28 countries and supported by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has resulted in more than 400 arrests of wildlife criminals and 350 major wildlife seizures across Africa and Asia.

But efforts to prosecute violators were hindered before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory opened in Oregon. Since then, the lab has been providing analytical services and expert witness testimony so that people illegally preying on wildlife face fines and jail time.

Said Ken Goddard, director of the lab: “You’re there to tell the truth and what your science has found. Have you been able to link the suspect, victim and crime scene with the physical evidence?”

Roughly 150,000 pieces of evidence are sent to the lab each year. Its earliest cases involved big-game kills — typically one-hunter, one-animal cases. The lab receives evidence that suggests an escalating demand for wildlife parts: rhino horn, which is more valuable per gram than gold, elephant ivory and bear gall bladders.

But how do scientists know if an ivory bracelet is from an elephant, narwhal, mammoth or hippopotamus? The lab’s colony of flesh-eating beetles, which skeletonize bones for identification, won’t always suffice. Nor will its three-dimensional scans of valuable museum specimens meant to compare skulls and other bones.

But one state-of-the-art instrument available in the lab reveals an item’s chemical components, helping scientists identify species. Another can beam an ultraviolet laser on a speck of blood to detect hemoglobin molecules, which have characteristics particular to each species.

Beyond the lab, an arsenal of innovative technology is targeting illegal wildlife trafficking. “There are 13 million people in southern Africa directly employed in the safari business and probably twice as many in indirect roles,” said Maryland-based computer scientist Tom Snitch. “The bottom line is, if there are no animals, all these jobs will be lost.” Snitch mobilizes rangers to stop poachers with algorithms — that is, drones programmed with his calculations. Historical data on poaching patterns, wildlife movement, vegetation and weather are all a part of the math.

At the lab, Goddard and his team have hosted scientists from around the country. A visit in 2014 by Asis Perez, director of the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, opened the door to collaboration with that country’s wildlife investigators. Goddard showed Perez an ivory tusk dyed blue to demonstrate how fingerprints are pulled up. The scientists found that the tusks were from elephants in southern Africa. The bullet impact suggested the herds had been shot from above, probably from a helicopter. The other three tons of ivory were sent to Denver to be crushed.