Fighting Crimes Against Wild Animals: Inside a Wildlife Forensics Lab

a post mortem exam of an oiled bird
Photo of Courtesy of the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory
Tabitha C. Viner, a supervisory veterinary pathologist performs a post mortem examination of an oiled bird.

Scientists at the lab have methods of dealing with materials that have been altered in appearance. "There are ways that we can see through dyed material in which they've tried to cover the pattern of the skin of a snake,"Espinozasays."We use tools that penetrate the dye, so we can see the pattern and make the species ID." They're also expert at testing and analyzing DNA in materials that are old or processed in various ways, like tanned leathers, or are body parts without the bestDNAsamples to begin with — like bone. "If you were to take a piece of meat from the butcher and sequence for the species, you'd be looking at 600 base pairs. That's a big chunk of DNA,"Espinozasays. "But if you were to do the bone of that very same animal, you'd be lucky to get 250 to 300 base pairs."

Solving Cases

The lab has been part of high-profile cases like the BP oil spill in the gulf of Mexico in 2010. "All of the birds that died in the oil spill came here for determining cause of death — and determining that the oil in fact came from the Macondo well," says Espinoza, referring to the site of the infamous spill.

Even when the lab finds that no crime was committed, it's often for interesting reasons — sometimes, because people didn't get what they paid for. "Many times, people think they have ivory and it turns out to be bone," Espinoza says. In some cases, traditional medicines that are supposed to contain animal parts not only aren't what they're advertised to be, they're actually dangerous, he says. "We've found out that the great majority of medicines from China that claim to contain rhino horn or tiger bone or other endangered species parts in fact do not. But they often contain very high levels of arsenic and mercury — enough to be lethal to humans."

And sometimes the lab finds that even though the victim is in fact a protected species, its death wasn't a crime — because some perpetrators are outside the law. "When you have a protected animal that is dead, normally the first inference we make is that somebody killed it, but sometimes after doing a necropsy, we find that in reality the trauma is due to interpredator rivalry or fighting," Espinoza says. "And in that case, it's not an illegal act, because it's being committed by other animals."

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