A suspicious shipment is stopped by U.S. authorities at one of the country’s many international ports of entry. The box is revealed to contain fragments of powdered tiger bone and dried organs, both common ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s too late for the tigers, but in order for justice to be served, criminals must be identified and stopped. But how to track the origin of the slain animals? That’s when wildlife forensics enters the crime scene.
Though this situation is hypothetical, it is based in an all-too-common reality. Illegal trafficking of wildlife comprises a billion-dollar international industry, and according to the World Wildlife Fund, the U.S. is one of the world’s largest consumers of illegal animals and their parts. But over the past decade the young field wildlife forensics has given conservationists, authorities, and prosecutors a powerful new tool for fighting back: DNA evidence.
If a shipment of tigers lands on the shores of the U.S., wildlife forensics can help trace its origins. Perhaps the shipment came from India, for example. Researchers can extract DNA from the remains, then route the sample to labs in India that have stockpiled a genetic database of local tigers. The lab could then confirm whether or not the animals came from India, helping to pinpoint the origin of the crime and coming one step closer to ending it.
Although wildlife forensics is often employed in labs around the world, there are very few organizations that are specifically dedicated to the cause, says Ashwin Naidu, a conservation genetics doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona. Naidu, who is currently building a forensic database for mountain lions in Arizona, plans on setting up a dedicated wildlife forensics service unit in the near future. “Everyone has their own way of doing their thing,” Naidu says of the international wildlife forensics efforts currently in effect, but he laments that communication is often lacking between labs and that research techniques can vary. This lack of cohesion in the field creates problems for exchanging case information and for making sure each lab’s results meet the same standards. Once everyone is on the same page, Naidu believes “wildlife forensics can be a field that is trusted globally and used as a service rather than just research.”
In the same way that DNA is used in human crime cases, wildlife forensics is employed to help identify the victims as well as the criminals. DNA can reveal whether an animal was bred in captivity or captured in the wild, as well as its species, origin, and source population.
To uncover these facts, researchers use samples like hair, bones, or blood from the animal. Examining special areas of the genome that contain unique sequences of DNA, geneticists can map both an individual animal’s “DNA fingerprint” and an entire species’ “DNA barcode.” These specific codes are then stored in a database and can be called up in the future to compare with unidentified samples from forensics cases. Especially when samples like meat, burnt skin, or bone fragments are involved, DNA can be an investigator’s last hope of figuring out a poached animal’s identification.
Naidu has big plans for the future and hopes others will share his enthusiasm. Many courts investigating wildlife crime are lacking in researchers available to testify, he says, “I think that’s a very important move that needs to be made by scientists for the benefit of wildlife conservation in this world.”
See also: Cracking down on bushmeat with DNA barcoding, Bird detectives, Feather forensics