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High-tech detectives focus on wildlife

Wildlife officials prying into the shadowy world of poaching are increasingly adapting technological advances — such as DNA analysis — used in fighting crimes against humans.
These alligator snapping turtles were recovered in 2002, in Greenwood, Miss., in a sting operation that ended in the arrest of a seller from Greenwood, Miss., and a buyer in Jacksonville, Ark. Both men were successfully prosecuted last year.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When federal authorities found that eggs from the endangered sea turtle were being sold on the sly behind a Florida restaurant, they turned to science’s latest investigative tools to ferret out the culprits.

Ginger Clark, a senior biological scientist at the University of Florida, was able to analyze the eggs’ DNA to determine that the sea turtles were of a species that nests in the Pacific.

With further analysis she pinpointed their likely origin — providing a critical lead in the investigation. Six months later, authorities broke up a smuggling ring that was importing the eggs from Nicaragua and selling them to people who believe eating them is aphrodisiac.

Wildlife officials prying into the shadowy world of poaching are increasingly adapting technological advances — such as DNA analysis — used in fighting crimes against humans.

Scientists can gather tiny samples of blood and tissue, check DNA against a database of thousands of species and determine the type of animal from which it came. These wildlife crime labs can reveal even the time of day an animal was killed.

That evidence can be used in court to prosecute poachers and black-market traders.

Assisted in 110 cases
Clark said her facility, the Biotechnologies for the Ecological, Evolutionary and Conservation Sciences’ Genetic Analysis Laboratory, has assisted in 110 cases since it began helping wildlife officials from Florida and other states part time in 1998.

“It’s certainly made a difference in how the officers approach a case,” Clark said. “With the availability of DNA technology, that becomes much more of a smoking gun because I can see the blood on this guy’s clothing is deer’s blood.”

The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory opened in 1989 in Ashland, Ore., and is the country’s only full-time wildlife crime lab. Its 33 workers use several areas of science — from morphology to genetics to computer crime — to help solve cases.

'We need help'
Director Ken Goddard said the lab is swamped with about 800 cases a year from state, federal and international jurisdictions. As a result, the lab has to prioritize the cases it accepts, whether they be trophy hunts, caviar scams or walrus tusk poaching.

“My view is we need help,” Goddard said. “We need the states to get labs or we need more people to do the work.”

He would like to see a network of federal and state wildlife crime labs developed to share information and discoveries.

Some university laboratories, like Clark’s at the University of Florida, work on wildlife forensics cases part of the time.

Others are developing different approaches to using technology to catch poachers. Mississippi State University is plotting incidents of poaching over the past five years to create a wildlife crime map and profiles of poachers.

“We are finding some very interesting things, maybe some things we didn’t want to know,” said Rich Minnis, a crime and intelligence analyst at Mississippi State. Minnis declined to detail the findings.

Daily trade in endangered wildlife
Wildlife officials know that endangered wildlife gets traded and sold daily.

For example, bear gall bladders, thought to have medicinal uses in parts of Asia, can fetch up to $1,000 per gram, Goddard said. That’s caused a rash of bear poaching in the United States.

“We find bears all over the U.S. with their abdomens cut open and their gall bladders removed,” Goddard said.

But even the latest technological advances haven’t answered some of the most basic questions: How many poachers and black-market traders are out there? How big is the business? How effective are the efforts to curb it?

“You’re asking questions that we’re asking that have never been answered,” said Kevin Hunt, director of Mississippi State’s Human Dimensions and Conservation Law Enforcement Laboratory. “There’s probably a lot more of it than we even care to imagine. If we knew how much was going on, the world would be appalled.”