Wildlife Forensic Scientists Help Crack Down on Poaching

According to a recent article on www.worldwatch.org, elephant poaching was discovered with the help of wildlife forensic scientists.  Over six hundred elephant tusks, valuable for ivory, were found hidden in a shipment of timbers. After an x-ray revealed the tusks, wildlife forensic scientists determined where the ivory came from.

Extracting elephant DNA from the ivory was the process used to find out exactly which area these elephants came from. They found that ivory seized in Singapore actually came from elephants in Zambia. This caused the county’s director of wildlife to be fired and harsher penalties for ivory smuggling in this area. Reviewing DNA is just one task a wildlife forensic scientist performs.

Poaching in the U.S. is harvesting animals out of their respective hunting season or killing endangered animals. Poaching is the 2nd most profitable crime with the drug crimes being #1. For instance, 70 pounds of bear gall bladders are sold for one million dollars!

Wildlife forensic scientists also examine, identify, and compare evidence items using a wide range of scientific procedures and instruments. And they can link suspects, victims, and crime scenes with physical evidence.  A very large wildlife forensic crime lab is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. They not only analyze samples and evidence for poaching but also in cases of animal cruelty or animal mortality such as with oil spills.

Wild life forensic scientists have at least a bachelor’s degree and then have additional training in criminology, vetinary sciences, forensics, and molecular genetics. While forensic scientists analyze and investigate human crimes, a wildlife forensic scientist is called upon to protect plants and animals. Even analyzing animal hairs can be used as trace evidence for burglaries, rapes, or homicides. Their skills certainly are needed in the criminal justice area.

As in the example cited above, small pieces of plant or animal can be analyzed to determine their origin or the origin of the perpetrators. This can then lead back to suspects. Scientists, in looking at small samples from animals, must be able to find and identify unique characteristics that would withstand court scrutiny that the sample could not be any other species in the world.

One professional group of wildlife forensic scientists formed in 2011. It is the Scientific Working Group for Wildlife Forensic Sciences (SWGWILD). They developed 3.0 General Standards and Guidelines including standards on training. Computer skills were listed as mandatory as they are needed for data processing, working with the instruments, and statistical inference, among others.

The new field of wildlife forensic science is gaining popularity as successes are mounting in reducing poaching and also solving other crimes. For those that are part of this fascinating field, the work is difficult but the rewards make it all worth it. Forensic scientists are now regularly working with other members of law enforcement to insure these wildlife perpetrators are brought to justice.

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