Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Sept. 28, 2006 — High-tech forensic methods used in human murder investigations are now being applied to crime involving wildlife, with remarkable success.
The perpetrators may lie and try to hide evidence, but scientists have been tracking down suspects for crimes ranging from the killing of animals for sport to the illegal smuggling of clothing and food.
Badger Baiters Exposed
British police recently apprehended individuals suspected of a crime known as badger baiting, which usually involves hitting a badger over the head with a shovel, placing the animal in a pit, and setting dogs upon it.
Dog owners often make bets on which canine will do the most damage. The practice still occurs, despite having been illegal in Britain since 1835.
Dirty garden spades were found in a suspect’s shed, but the man said he had just done some planting. The case seemed to be at a dead end until the police brought the spades to Ruth Morgan, a scientist at Oxford University’s Center for the Environment.
"Most people think that mud is mud is mud," Morgan told Discovery News. "What they don’t realize is that almost everything within dirt, such as plant materials, minerals and quartz, can tell us exactly where the mud came from."
Morgan and her team had just solved a murder case in England, linking dirt from a vacuum cleaner used to clean a suspect’s car to a location where two girls’ bodies were dumped.
The scientists used the same research methods when analyzing the mud-caked spades. Their findings will be published in the October issue of the journal Forensic Science International.
Examining the samples with microscopes revealed particles of quartz, iron-rich nodules, small clumps of clay, wood pieces, miscellaneous organic debris and light-colored root fibers. The mixture closely matched dirt samples from the badger baiting site.
The size and shape distribution of the particles also matched granules linked to the crime scene, but this still wasn’t enough evidence for conviction.
"In court, we’ve found that pollen and quartz analysis are stronger and more indicative pieces of evidence," Morgan said.
In this case, quartz turned out to be especially important, since the combination of grain textures found on the shovels could not be matched to more than 1,000 U.K. soil locations documented in the scientists’ database. The textures did, however, match dirt taken from the badger baiting site.
The evidence helped convict the suspects.
Since the case, the scientists have helped British authorities catch another badger baiter, whose boots were caked in mud and bits of badger fur. They also stopped an illegal importer of endangered falcons, whose rope carried mud that was linked to falcon breeding sites in Mallorca, Spain.
Shawl Smugglers Nabbed
Dirt analysis isn’t the only tool in a detective’s kit. Researchers also analyze fibers with microscopes and test DNA for a variety of wildlife-related criminal investigations.
This summer, Thai authorities, in conjunction with the Association of South East Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, the World Conservation Union (WCU), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and WildAid, busted a smuggling ring involved in the illegal trade of shahtoosh wool. This wool can only be obtained by killing the endangered Tibetan antelope.
"The wool is rare and like gossamer, so it's extremely valuable," Crawford Allan, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America, told Discovery News. TRAFFIC is the trade monitoring network for the WCU and WWF.
Allan explained that the illegal trade begins with poachers who kill antelope in the Tibetan Plateau. They smuggle the wool into Kashmir, where weavers make the shawls. The clothing is then sold in India or sent through "underground" luxury markets, sometimes involving well-known fashion designers and private "shahtoosh parties" complete with European models and private chefs.
The raid seized 250 purported shahtoosh shawls valued at several million dollars. They likely involved the slaughter of more than 1,000 Tibetan antelopes.
Since the shawls resemble a legal wool — pashmina — authorities are analyzing the shawl fibers to determine hair type and shape, and may also conduct DNA tests.
Culinary Criminals Caught
Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University, said he has worked with federal authorities to apply similar DNA testing to shark fins taken from a New York dealer.
Shark dealers usually send fins to international markets, primarily in Asian countries, saying the fins come from legally hunted species.
DNA testing conducted by Shivji and his team found that 230 pounds of fins came from endangered dusky, basking and great white sharks.
"When you confirm it with DNA (in court), it’s usually pretty much a slam dunk," said NOAA attorney Charles Juliand, who worked on the case.
This weekend, experts from 12 countries will meet at the Conference on the Protection of Sturgeons in Germany to discuss how DNA testing can help eliminate the sale of certain types of caviar.
The scrutiny of DNA work is particularly necessary for caviar, because it enables scientists to not only detect the species of fish, but also pinpoint where it came from. Sturgeon fishing is permitted in some rivers, but prohibited at others, so identifying the location is key.
While science is catching up with wildlife criminals, the real power for stopping these illegal activities is in the hands of the public, said Allan.
"Sometimes people aren’t even aware that the shawl they’re wearing or the food they are consuming is illegal and hurting wildlife," he said. "Educating the public is vital. We need to make others aware of these issues and how they are adversely affecting wildlife."