(This blog was posted by former WWK Blogger Kara Cerise in 2015. Hope you like it!)
Did you know there is a forensics laboratory devoted solely to crimes against wildlife?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory located in Ashland, Oregon is the only crime laboratory in the world of its kind.
Why is this lab so important? According to the television program TechKnow on Al Jazeera America and an article, it’s on the front lines in a fight against the illegal trade in endangered species. Surprisingly, this 19 billion dollar industry is the fourth largest criminal industry in the world behind drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Also, it's connected to organized crime, militant groups and even al-Qaeda.
I was shocked to learn that since the 1970s the number of animal species has declined on average by half!
For example, the rhinoceros is being killed for its horn because people believe that it can cure medical problems even though it’s made of essentially the same substance as your fingernail. A rhino’s horn is worth $200,000 to $400,000 on the black market. Sadly, the rhino population has been devastated with fewer than 30,000 remaining in the wild. The Western black rhinoceros has been declared extinct. Time will tell if all rhinos become extinct.
Director Ken Goddard, who was working as a human CSI agent, built and now runs the wildlife forensics laboratory. In an interview he said that the most difficult part of setting up the crime lab was convincing agents they needed one to help catch poachers and other criminals.
The lab employs about fifteen scientists in five different areas (chemistry, criminalistics, genetics, morphology, and pathology). This team works for approximately 150 other countries that signed the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Treaty.
The goal of the laboratory, similar to forensics labs that deal with human murder, is to link suspect, victim, and crime scene with physical evidence.
The science begins when a package arrives in evidence processing along with questions from field agents. Evidence items could be an entire animal or part of one depending on the size, or an object (a carving, leather from a purse, etc.) suspected of being from an animal. Often agents want to know what kind of animal it was and if it's on the endangered list. To make this determination, scientists might take DNA from the sample. For example, in the case of a rhino horn they may drill close to its core in order to obtain tissue. The tissue is crushed into fine powder and liquid is poured on it to break it down. Then it's compared with other samples in lab.
If the object is something like a carving, the procedure is more difficult. They need to look at chemical signatures to determine if it's rhinoceros keratin or another material like plastic.
Next, scientists determine if the animal was killed by an animal, an accidental death or killed by a human.
In the Al Jazeera news segment I watched, they showed an autopsy on a golden eagle that was found and sent in by a field agent. It was conducted similar to an autopsy on a human with the veterinary pathologist dictating into a headset microphone while working. During examination she determined that some of the eagle's feathers were singed which suggests it was probably electrocuted by a power line. In photos taken under special yellow light, the feathers glowed orange which was further proof of electrocution.
Penalties for animal crimes are much less than other crimes like drug trafficking. Punishment for killing an endangered species may be three years in prison and a fine of a few thousand dollars. To deter these killings, many people believe that the penalties need to be greater.
Director Ken Goddard said that the scientists are pushing the envelope every day to solve wildlife crimes. But they need more labs in different areas of the world to handle the case load. Currently they process 2,000 to 4,000 cases annually.
Of course, building and staffing new labs would take money.
I’m tossing out an idea because you never know who is reading this...Wouldn't it be great if the CSI franchise created a new TV show called “CSI for Animals” based on cases processed by this animal forensics lab and donated part of the proceeds to fund more labs?
What is your favorite wild animal?
Have you read any mysteries that feature an animal investigator?
Photo courtesy of Colin the Scot at https://www.flickr.com/photos/colinthescotLicense https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/