Wildlife Crime

Fellow appraiser Nancy Martin sent me an interesting article from the NY Times magazine blog on wildlife crime, and how it has grown into a $19 billion industry.  With all of the attention focused on ivory at the moment, this article looks into some other areas of black market wildlife.

The below block quote is only a portion of the article, please follow the source link below to read the full article.

The NY Times reports
Wildlife crime has grown to a $19 billion dollar annual global trade, according to a report released last year by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a conservation nonprofit. The black market in wildlife parts and products is the fourth-largest illegal industry worldwide, behind narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking, and it may well outstrip other illicit enterprises in terms of the variety of crimes and the complexities they pose for law enforcement. The wildlife trade encompasses culinary delicacies and Asian medicines, pets and hunting trophies, clothing and jewelry. It takes in commodities such as elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, bushmeat, the shells of giant tortoises, the pelts of big-game cats. The environmental and social costs of the trade are grave. Wildlife crime is contributing to the erosion of natural resources and the spread of infectious diseases; it is providing robust new revenue streams for criminal syndicates and even terrorists. In a July 2013 executive order enhancing United States government coordination to combat wildlife crime, President Obama deemed the surge in poaching and trafficking an “international crisis” that is “fueling instability and undermining security.”

The Ashland lab occupies a front line in this global struggle. Over the years, its researchers have done groundbreaking work, advancing science while arming law enforcement with crucial crime-fighting tools. Scientists at the lab discovered ways of extracting DNA from the leather in a handbag; they’ve successfully lifted fingerprints from objects that have been submerged in saltwater. In the 1990s, the lab pioneered a method of obtaining genetic information from a single fish egg, an innovation that helped foil caviar smugglers. It developed new techniques in ivory morphology to combat traffickers of elephant tusks. The impact of this work has reverberated far from Ashland. Bureaucratically, the lab is an oddity. It is a United States federal government institution; it’s also the official crime lab for the 180 nations that are parties to the CITES agreement. Effectively, it is the world’s wildlife forensics lab.

FLIGHT RISKS Drawers full of mounted parrot specimens.Credit Richard Barnes
The scope of the lab’s reach is on view in the place where the casework begins: the evidence control area. Each day, the mail is unpacked by the lab’s evidence handlers, and they have seen just about everything: poisoned bald eagles; a panther riddled with bullet wounds; 78 elephant tusks, poached in Africa and seized in Singapore; a rotting python corpse, coiled like a firehose and folded into a cooler. Two shipments in the spring of 2010 brought more than 200 pelicans: victims of the BP oil spill. The lab treated all the pelicans as separate homicide cases, extracting fluid from each bird’s lungs, which was matched by United States Coast Guard investigators to the oil that gushed from a well drilled by BP’s ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig.

On a recent morning, a cooler arrived bearing the frozen remains of a Mexican gray wolf. The badly decomposed carcass was thawed out and then placed on the slab in the pathology unit, where a necropsy was conducted by Rebecca Kagan, a veterinary pathologist. “It’s been maggot-scavenged, there’s not much left in there,” Kagan said. “But here’s a hole, a bloody hole. And here’s another nice little wound path going all the way through.” X-rays showed trace metal in the wolf’s chest — bullet fragments, in all likelihood — which Kagan dug out to pass along to the criminalistics unit for analysis.

The wolf case was straightforward. But wildlife crime brings novel challenges to the work of forensics. The task of forensic scientists is to examine evidence in an effort to connect victim, crime scene and suspect. A traditional forensic investigation begins with a classic question: Whodunit? At the Ashland lab, the mystery is often more fundamental: What is it? Evidence in wildlife cases frequently appears in states of decay or in unidentified parts. The first step is to make the ID: to determine what exactly the evidence is and if it belongs to a species that is protected by law.
Source: The NY Times  

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