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How forensics is boosting the battle against wildlife trade

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(Read caption) A white rhino and her calf walk in the dusk in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa in 2012.

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[This article originally appeared at Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.]

Feisal Mohammed Ali, a prominent member of the Kenyan business community, was convicted last July of trafficking two tons of elephant ivory found in a Fuji Motors parking lot in Mombasa. The landmark ruling came after two years of drama: Feisal’s flight to Tanzania, his capture and repatriation, the disappearance of nine vehicles that were major evidence in the case, and accusations of evidence tampering.

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The landmark wildlife crime verdict – and 20-year sentence for Feisal – in part came down to political will, courtroom monitoring by NGOs, and police work. Also key, experts say, was the ability to use genetic tests to tie the illegally trafficked elephant tusks from different shipments to the cartel headed by Feisal.

“When we linked tusks genetically, we were able to say that there was a one-in-quadrillion chance that those two shipments came from a random individual, [rather than from the accused],” explains Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who consulted with Kenyan prosecutors on the Feisal case. “That is directly usable for courtroom prosecutions and is becoming more and more so.”

In the last several years, technical progress in human forensics – genetic, spectrographic, chemical, analytical – has spilled over into wildlife and plant forensics and research. In 2013, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) recognized the importance of wildlife forensics, and in September, at the most recent CITES meeting in Johannesburg, forensics hit the mainstream. Several conference workshops and NGO seminars sought to teach airport officials and police different wildlife forensic techniques, such as how to take tissue samples, gather intelligence, and use genetic evidence. The parties also passed a resolution that encourages CITES members to create and maintain reference collections of wood samples that forensic scientists might use when analyzing wood they suspect has been illegally traded. Experts also presented the first-ever global survey of wildlife forensic labs.

Until recently, wildlife crime investigators largely focused on seizing contraband, identifying the species in a seized shipment, and prosecuting those caught red-handed – usually poachers lower down the criminal food chain.

The developing science of wildlife forensics, however, makes it possible for investigators to perform tests that were just dreams a decade or two ago. Separating out genetic and chemical markers from physical samples such as rhino horn or a piece of rosewood, forensic scientists can often tell the age of the sample, exactly where the animal or plant came from, what its parentage might be, and how this relates to other seized shipments. Sometimes, forensic scientists can even shed light on the structure of the criminal networks behind the trade by showing where poached animals and plants are killed, and what ports are used to transport them.

In recent years, trade in endangered wildlife has soared. Some scientists estimate that 40,000 African elephants are killed for their tusks each year, nearly 10 percent of the estimated wild population of 400,000. Only 5,000 black rhinos and 3,900 tigers remain in the wild. Rhino poaching deaths have quadrupled since 2010. And those are just the most charismatic of the thousands of illegally traded species: Proboscis monkeys, rosewood, pangolin (an armadillo-like mammal), and many others suffer similar pressures.

In many countries where endangered wildlife are poached or traded, forensics is just beginning to gain traction. Experts universally lament the lack of funding, equipment, and international cooperation. But there are hopeful cases that show how the field could have a profound impact:

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• Wasser led a team that created a genetic database from 28 large seizures of ivory tusks between 1996 and 2014. By statistically matching the genotypes of known elephant populations to 16 loci on genetic samples from seized tusks, Wasser’s team was able to show in a 2015 paper that most elephants were killed in just four areas of the African continent. And most of the major seizures came from just two regions: savanna elephants poached in southeastern Tanzania and neighboring Mozambique, and forest elephants in Gabon and neighboring areas of Congo and the Central African Republic.

“How many of these cases get prosecuted?” Wasser asks. “Hardly any. Nobody is digging deeper, and that has to change. This is transnational crime, and our approach certainly changed for narcotics. Things need to change for wildlife crime as well.”

• Tiger populations have been mapped in Nepal and in Southeast Asia, using genetic information from scat. Since only 40 to 50 viable populations of wild tigers remain worldwide, conservationists hope to use this information to better allocate resources to fight poaching. Tigers are naturally solitary and hard to track. By knowing where the populations are, and how they’re related, rangers can better predict where the poachers will be as well. Last April, the World Wildlife Fund announced that tiger numbers are increasing for the first time in 100 years, and credited these improved surveys as being partly responsible.

• Shark fins, used to make the coveted Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, can be difficult to identify once separated from the shark, skinned, and processed. A landmark 2015 study used genetic markers to show that even in places where the soup is legal, it contains shark fins traded illegally – that is, from shark species protected by CITES. Similar genetic data has been used in prosecutions in the U.S., Australia, and other countries.

• In South Africa, the University of Pretoria has compiled a genetic database of DNA samples from black and white rhinos throughout the country. Based on a human database used in American law enforcement, called the Offender Data Information System (ODIS), the university created a rhino database, “rhODIS.” It can help match recovered rhino horn to individual rhinos and poached rhinos, by comparing the genetics of the seized horn to the samples in the database. In 2012, data from this rhODIS helped put a Zimbabwean trafficker behind bars for 10 years, when prosecutors proved that three horns found in his possession were genetically linked to a poaching incident in which a white rhino female and calf had been killed.

• The Gabon park system, at the center of one of the continent’s poaching hotspots, is compiling a database of poached elephant DNA that park officials hope will be useful in prosecutions.

• Thailand last month announced a DNA registration system for all domesticated elephants so that they can be distinguished from their wild counterparts, which traders sometimes illegally pass off as those used for domestic purposes.

Yet for all the promise of these advances, the first international survey of wildlife forensic capability, presented at the most recent CITES meeting, paints a sobering picture.

“[There is] still insufficient capacity for conducting wildlife forensic casework, particularly in regions with the greatest need for the identification of CITES-listed species in trade,” the report states.

The review, prepared by the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, tallied 110 questionnaire responses from 39 countries. The investigators found that only one-third of labs cooperated internationally, only one half operated according to any quality assurance standard, only one-quarter reported being involved in actual legal cases, and only six wildlife forensic labs in the world have been audited by any external accrediting agency.

The report does point out that standardization in the field remains in its infancy, and expresses hope that these numbers will increase in the next five years. But many issues – data sharing, lab and sample collecting standards, budgets – need to be worked out for wildlife forensics to reach its potential, experts say.

In 2013, CITES formally urged countries seizing elephant tusk shipments of more than half a ton to turn over samples within 90 days.

“At this stage we receive samples several months or years after seizure and the matches are merely a matter of interest and to give an indication of the movement of the products, rather than evidence in prosecutions,” says Cindy Harper, director of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory that manages the rhODIS database at the University of Pretoria. She said it was vital to rapidly link all wildlife product seizures with international databases.

In the last five years, many countries have begun to invest in wildlife forensic labs, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Botswana, Kenya, and South Africa. The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science now has approximately 150 members in 60 labs around the world, and has begun to circulate an international test for certifying laboratories.

Meanwhile, new methods are coming out of forensic labs all the time.

Confronted with a pallet of wood from Asia, it’s now possible to tell which of the logs or boards came from protected wild trees, and which from tree plantations, grown to take the pressure off endangered wild forests. A DART-TOF technique – zapping wood samples with superheated helium to create particulates with a chemical signature that can be measured by spectrography – allows samples to be quickly tested. It has recently been used to identify various types of oaks, eucalypts, and rosewoods. Researchers say they hope it will be useful in future prosecutions of timber poachers.

A new technique presented at the last CITES meetings enables law enforcement officials to measure isotopes in ivory, dating the age of seized tusks. Atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s released carbon-14 that was taken up by plants worldwide. That carbon-14 remains, gradually decreasing by a known amount each year. When elephants eat plants, some of that carbon-14 travels to their tusks, and scientists can pinpoint the year of an animal’s death by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a tusk. If a tusk dates from after 1989 – when the global ivory trade was banned – it’s probably illegal. Though this method has been used in a few cases, it is not widespread.

More technical advances are in the works. Next generation sequencing (NGS), a method that makes it fast and relatively inexpensive to sequence the whole genetic code of an organism, might make it possible to identify individual animals more quickly and cheaply, scientists say.

A company in Oxford, England, is developing MinION, a hand-held gene sequencer. Experts say that it could be useful, making it possible to quickly identify a poached species, or even an individual, in the field. But it’s expensive, and you need training to use it.

Wasser was just awarded a grant from the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge for a project that will use NGS to track trade in pangolins, an armadillo-like animal prized as a culinary delicacy and ingredient in traditional medicine. He plans to use NGS to create a map of pangolin-poaching incidents similar to the one he compiled for elephants.

Given the dire epidemic of wildlife poaching, forensic experts say tools such as genetic analysis must be used to help turn the tide in the battle to save elephants, rhinos, tigers, and other species.

“We ... need more awareness that there is tech out there which can help answer these sorts of questions,” says Eleanor Dormontt, who works on illegal timber trade issues at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author who covers topics such as health, science, the environment, and geopolitics. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and Wired, among other publications. She lives in San Francisco.