Only in The Far Side, the award-winning cartoon series by Gary Larson, does it seem that elephants, crocodiles and bears stand a fighting chance against the greed of humankind. In reality, the global market for illegal wildlife products has escalated into an estimated $1-to $2-billion-a-year business, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
But now, elephants, sea turtles, grizzlies, rhinos and the whole Noah's ark of other endangered, threatened or at least besieged animals may have a chance to get even. Far from the plains of Africa or the waters of the Caribbean, a scientific discipline is being developed to stem the annihilation of rare animals. The first full-service, national "crime lab" specifically created to analyze crimes against wildlife opened in September 1988, in Ashland, Ore.
The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is already being called the Scotland Yard for endangered species. Ken Goddard, the lab director, says that the analogy is appropriate. Staffed by 10 forensic scientists, plus nine other employees, and furnished with equipment that rivals the most sophisticated police crime labs, this 23,000-square-foot facility will support wildlife law enforcement at the state, national and international levels.
Forensic science is the application of scientific knowledge to criminal investigations. Law enforcement agencies from the FBI to local police departments routinely rely on this technique to tie suspect, victim and crime scene together through a methodical examination of physical evidence. There are an estimated 345 forensic labs in the U.S. and perhaps 4,000 forensic scientists. Until now, most have been helping to solve crimes committed against man. But when the victim is other than a Homo sapiens, few experts or techniques exist in the U.S. or anywhere else. Wildlife forensic science is such a new, evolving discipline that the number of experts worldwide is estimated to be fewer than 25.
February 12, 1990
Goddard, an author whose third crime novel, Digger, will be published this fall, knows police work firsthand. He graduated from the University of California, Riverside, in 1968 with a degree in biochemistry and then acquired a master's in criminalistics from Cal State Los Angeles. He was director of the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Crime Lab for seven years before being hired in 1979 to design a forensic branch for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Most wildlife crimes are not successfully prosecuted because of a lack of judicially acceptable evidence to link the accused to the crime. It has been pretty much a matter of catching the perpetrator in the act—or no case. But though it seemed obvious that a wildlife crime lab could provide such evidence, it required the better part of a decade to find enough support to create Ashland. Ultimately, the National Audubon Society, the Animal Welfare Institute and the National Wildlife Federation banded together to persuade Congress to appropriate the $4.5 million needed to build and equip this facility.
The Wildlife Forensics Lab is now developing the expertise and evidentiary techniques that can withstand legal challenges in U.S. and international courts. In a typical case, the lab might need to prove that the blood or tissue found on a hunter came from an illegally killed grizzly bear and not from any other animal. Or law enforcement officers might be required to establish that feathers found in a suspect's possession were taken from a protected bald eagle. Or customs officials who confiscate carved ivory items might need to substantiate that the source was an elephant, not a walrus, a narwhal, a mastodon, a mammoth or even a warthog. Frequently this could require identifying the animal, even though the evidence is a heavily processed product, such as a pair of boots or a knife handle.
When an animal was killed might be a determining factor in whether a crime was committed, because species are added to the endangered list at different times. For instance, this year 19 plants and 17 animals were added to the list, which now totals 1,070 plants and animals. "The people working in our laboratory are among the pioneers in this field," Goddard says. "Fifty, 100 years down the road, people are going to be referencing basic work done in this lab."
The first task of the technicians and scientists is to learn how to identify the species-source of hair, fur, leather, hides, feathers, blood, tissue, tusks, claws and teeth. Zoos and museums that have parts—blood, tissue, teeth, claws, hair—from known species of known parentage are providing information for the lab's data banks and samples for comparative testing. The lab also employs the latest high-tech gear. One particularly valuable piece of equipment, a $250,000 scanning electron microscope, was actually designed by Scotland Yard for human forensic work. It can magnify an object up to 100,000 times. "Imagine blowing a penny up to a circle more than a mile in diameter, and you can see its capability and potential," Goddard says. "We might have to prove that a piece of ivory came from an African or Asian elephant. We can look for minute structures that clearly distinguish a particular type of ivory from that of other species, identifications that simply aren't visible under any other microscope." The same electron microscope can also probe gunshot residues and match specific shell casings to specific firearms, which will prove invaluable in determining whose gun made an illegal kill.
Another tool the lab hopes to acquire is a system that employs lasers and computers to digitize fingerprints and compare them with a data base that contains the fingerprints of known poachers and illegal wildlife dealers. And the same type of gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer used at the Olympics to detect steroids in athletes' urine will help the Wildlife Forensics Lab to identify the specific poisons and pesticides used to kill animals. Then the same procedure will be followed as in the case of a human poisoning: determine the poison and amount; determine its origin; and link victim, suspect and crime scene with physical evidence.
Dealing in illegal wildlife products is a complex international affair, and like good business school graduates, many of the traffickers use computers to maintain their records. The Ashland lab recently hired an expert who specializes in breaking computer codes and encryption to decipher such information when it comes into the hands of enforcement agents.
Wildlife forensic experts can already distinguish some species of animals through the separation and examination of proteins in the blood. Within five years, Goddard predicts, DNA analysis of the chromosomes of different animals will be one of the basic detection methods in wildlife prosecutions. A DNA "fingerprint" can provide positive identification of an animal—not just its species but the specific animal—from minute tissue samples.
Not everything at the wildlife lab is high tech. One of its major goals is to create a collection of bird and small animal skeletons to be used for comparison with bones found at crime scenes. Sometimes when a potential skeleton comes in, Goddard traps insects from under the porch at his home in Ashland and puts them in a container with the newly arrived carcass. "We get nice clean bones and very happy beetles," he says.
More than 100 nations have signed a convention on international trade in endangered species. Technologies and skills developed in the Ashland lab will be important to other nations in their enforcement efforts. However, much of the market for illegal products from endangered species derives from traditions and cultures within countries. The Wildlife Forensics Lab makes accommodations for such traditions when it can. For instance, bald and golden eagles are protected species. Yet the feathers of these birds have important roles in many Native American religious ceremonies. The lab functions as a national eagle repository for golden and bald eagle carcasses from all over the U.S. The remains are distributed to Native Americans on a request basis. "We only find 300 to 400 eagles a year; we're about 900 requests behind," Goddard says.
Cows and horses graze peacefully in a field across the road from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. It is a pleasant scene to the casual observer. To one familiar with the work that is being done within those walls, the scene may be even more comforting. There, inside that man-made structure, scientists are developing the expertise and the techniques that promise to balance the scales a little more evenly on behalf of all animals.
Henry L. Freund is a film producer who is based in Ashland, Ore.