A compelling and informative new book has come out about the Forensics Laboratory of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its pioneering efforts to apply the “CSI” factor to the investigation and prevention of wildlife and environmental crimes. Laurel Neme, the author of “Animal Investigators,” tells a riveting story of the scientists and agents at the Oregon-based laboratory who are using forensic methodologies to bring the curtain down on illegal wildlife trafficking and other criminal wrongdoing.
From the dozens of closed cases available for review, Neme chose three to showcase the laboratory’s work, focusing on Alaskan walruses slaughtered for tusk ivory, the illicit trade in black bear gall bladders for traditional Chinese medicine (an issue on which The HSUS has worked extremely hard over the years), and the illegal smuggling of Amazon feather art from Brazil, which threatens scarlet macaws, harpy eagles, and other protected animals. All three narratives are absorbing, each demonstrates the practical and scientific complexity of today’s wildlife-related crimes, and their investigation, and together, they show how powerful these relatively new techniques are for establishing the guilt or innocence of the accused.
The moral case against wildlife trafficking, of course, has been made already. "Animal Investigators” is about bringing the perpetrators to justice by applying the most sophisticated forensic techniques. I’m very encouraged about this powerful weaponry in combating the multi-billion-dollar global trade in illegal animal parts—where the collective exploitation of wildlife rivals factory farming in the amount of suffering caused by the hand of humanity.
While the techniques are innovative and exciting, there are troubling countervailing forces. One critical point that emerges from Neme’s account is the grossly deficient underfunding of wildlife law enforcement work by the federal government and also at the state level—which is now at a crisis point because of tough choices by cash-strapped states and by the federal government. We need to do a better job of ensuring that these agencies, and the scientists and investigative agents they employ, get the resources to be effective in their gathering and analysis of evidence. The HSUS recently launched a partnership with the law enforcement unit of the California Department of Fish and Game who use rescued dogs to help track down wildlife criminals, and we expect to do more of this. We also offer cash rewards throughout the country that provide law enforcement with information that leads to the arrest and successful prosecution of people who commit wildlife crimes.
The odds are still stacked mightily against wildlife and their protectors and in favor of the poachers. The Fish and Wildlife Service lab has to investigate a wide array of cases, and must be ready to handle and assess an estimated 30,000 species of victims. It houses thousands of samples of contraband items, like polar bear rugs, tarantula paperweights, crocodile face ashtrays, dried seal penises, bear paws, and all kinds of hides, feathers, bones, and the like, and at any given time is also responsible for analyzing preserved animals and animal parts and carcasses as part of its caseload.
As Neme argues, too, so much more work is needed, to develop reliable methods for identifying species-specific identifying characteristics consistently, for expanding the lab’s DNA reference collection, and for identifying the next generation of scientific challenges, and for better integrating standard investigative work with the assets of the laboratory to tie traffickers to their wrongdoing.
I’ve previously shared tips about what the concerned citizen can do to help protect endangered species, especially by purging our purchasing lists of wildlife products. But "Animal Investigators” underscores the crucial importance of our becoming more vocal in letting government know that we care about wildlife law enforcement and want it to receive greater funding and institutional support. Inspired by this book, which makes it clear how much can be done and how much is at stake, we’ll continue to make wildlife law enforcement a major priority in our work in the years to come—just as we've amped up our anti-cruelty work in the realms of animal fighting, horse protection, and companion animal protection.