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Dead reckoning: wildlife super sleuths use sophisticated forensics to track poachers.

How would Sherlock Holmes tackle he mysterious "Case of the Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat"? Special U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) Agent Rich McDonald says looking into a wildlife homocide is just like investigating a human murder. "The only difference is you can't go out and interview who the leopard was drinking with the night before," he says.

With only a piece of hide, some talons, a horn or a feather as evidence, most wildlife crimes have gone unprosecuted.

Not anymore.

The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab, the first full-service wildlife crime lab in the worlds, opened its doors in Ashland, Oregon in June 1989. In just five short years, the lab has become a potent tool in the fight to stop the illegal trade in wildlife.

The U.S. is the world's largest trader of wildlife and wildlife products, accounting for about one fifth or $1 billion of the estimated $5 billion trade worldwide. A "record book" elk head may bring $20,000, a tiger skin $10,000. Hundreds of protected species are endangered because of voracious commercial demand. With an arsenal of high-tech equipment and a team of chemists, biologists, criminologists and forensic experts, the lab makes the crucial links between victim, criminal and crime scene. The team often does this with nothing more than a small drop of dried blood as a clue.

Ken Goddard, director of the lab, is obviously proud of the staff he recruited. "Any one of them could head up a major criminal investigation for any police department in the U.S.," says Goddard, who was the chief criminalist of the Huntington Beach, California, police department when the USFW hired him to set up the forensics lab. Eight years later, Southern Oregon State College loaned the land, and the pipe dream became a $3.5 million, 23,000-square-foot reality. Half of the staff came from police crime labs, the other half from museums and universities.

The tools of their trade include a $250,000 electron microscope designed by Scotland Yard for forensic work and laser-driven fingerprint scanning devices. "As far as I know, there is nothing else like this anywhere in the world," says Goddard. "We work with law enforcement officials from all over the country to process evidence gathered in suspected endangered species trafficking cases. Our goal is to put a stop to the killing and the selling of these animals and put the perpetrators out of commission." The lab now offers its services to wildlife law enforcement authorities around the world.

The stereo and scanning electron microscope help the lab to identify not only wildlife parts such as fur and feathers, but also blood and tissue samples and processed wildlife products. Chromosome information will also be used in making species identifications.

To actually stop this illegal trade is a tall order. Increasingly, wildlife crimes are committed by international networks armed with high-tech weaponry and electronic gear. Poachers now use scientific tracking equipment to locate animals, such as hibernating radio-collared bears in the Appalachians.

"The work that we've done has had an environmental impact," says Ed Espinoza, head of criminalistics. As an example of this, he cites the lab's work with ivory. Using the $250,000 electron microscope and a 25-cent protractor, two of the lab's scientists discovered a structural difference between the ivory of modern Asian and African elephants (banned) and that of prehistoric mastodons and mammoths (legal). The distinction is crucial because traders of illegal ivory have escaped prosecution by claiming their product is the prehistoric type, still found preserved in arctic regions.

In just 10 years (1979-1989), poachers decimated the African elephant population - reducing it by more than half. With the lab's discovery, illegal traders are now prosecuted. "We don't see elephant ivory coming in anymore," says Espinoza. What the lab sees now, replacing the elephant trade, is ivory from the teeth of hippopotamus and the tusks of wart hogs. Both of these are legal.

The elephant research the forensics lab did was translated into other languages and distributed worldwide so everyone, including port inspectors, now knows how to identify the source of an ivory carving. Trade in ivory has stopped, resulting in large warehouses full of tusks, because now there's a risk of losing large sums of money. Espinoza predicts, "If there's a crack in the door, it will start pouring in again."

Some cases that come to the lab have straightforward solutions, such as a mysterious group of dead eagles. The serology section, which looks at meat protein and DNA techniques, established that the last thing the birds had eaten was in the cat family. The criminalistic section identified the presence of pentobarbitol in the crop and blood of the dead eagles. The lab discovered that the Humane Society was euthanizing cats with injections of the drug. The carcasses were then thrown into the city dump and the eagles were coming down and feeding on them.

Wildlife cases are often much more complicated than that and can be difficult to prosecute. There are seldom any witnesses to such crimes, as they usually take place in wild and remote areas. The evidence often doesn't turn up until long after the crime itself has been committed and, by then, it may well have been damaged or radically altered. What do you do if you suspect a store in the U.S. is dealing in illegal wildlife or wildlife products? The lab suggests that you contact your state office of USFW, which conducts investigative and covert operations to follow up on leads. The work can be risky. Wildlife agents are more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than any other law enforcement officer.

Espinoza suggests that tourists stay away from any wildlife products they see for sale, because it's hard to know what you're buying. The chances are high, he says, that the item is not made from the animal you think it is. "We see a tremendous amount of fraud in wildlife trade," Espinoza adds. A big area of confusion is leather products. Many people are hard pressed to tell if leather goods are from cattle or some other source. If you do buy an illegal product, it will be seized when you reenter the U.S.

There are 350 federal, state, and local crime labs in the U.S., but only one that works with wildlife forensics. Will we be seeing more? Espinoza says finances will dictate that. "Right now, we're struggling to survive. The slice of the USFW budget that we get is only 2.8 percent - that's for all of law enforcement, not just the lab."

The contraband traffic in wild animals and wild animal parts is increasing rapidly, and the USFW lab is one of the few serious buffers helping to control it. Donations will help keep the lab open and fully operational.

Contact: National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab, 1490 East Main Street, Ashland, OR 97520/(503)482-4191.
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Author:Doyle, Kathleen F.
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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