In Ashland, A Crime Lab For 34,000 Species

May 29, 2012

The illegal trade of wildlife is big business- worth an estimated 5 billion dollars a year, and growing. But who do you call to investigate a crime when the victim is an elephant, or a butterfly?

Turns out, there’s only one forensics team in the world that can handle crimes involving thousands of rare and endangered species. The team works at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon. The lab isn’t open to the public. But reporter Amelia Templeton got a glimpse inside.

Every day, FedEx delivers coolers and packages to a loading dock outside this forensics lab in Ashland. They contain dead wolves, tiger penises, and strange meat. A yellow evidence tag is attached to each delivery.

On this day, biologist Barry Baker is examining some new evidence in a petri dish. “They’re either a alligator or a crocodile, or a caiman, or a gharial of some type.“

The petri dish holds a small pair of feet, with delicate claws. A wildlife agent suspected the feet belonged to an endangered species. He sent them to Baker to identify. Baker is not sure how far he is going to get. “There’s never been anything written on how to tell all the crocodiles and alligators apart based on their feet. “

Identifying species is the core of what this crime lab does. “They were the first lab, the first wildlife forensics lab, to tackle the identification of exotic species,” says Ernie Cooper, with the World Wildlife Federation. He was Canada’s first wildlife inspector.  “Oftentimes with wildlife crimes, the first question is what is it, and is there a crime. You know who’s involved. You just have to determine whether or not a law has been broken.”

Cooper says an international convention bans the trade of about 34,000 different species of plants and animals.  But it can be hard for agents in the field to tell the difference between a cow bone, which is legal to import, and a tiger bone, which is not.  “It’s not like these are 34,000 species that are always found whole. They can be made into a huge variety of products.” 

That’s where the wildlife forensics lab comes in.  “Some of the hardest fakes to tease out are some of the black, patent leather what appear to be crocodile handbags,” says Baker, the crime lab’s reptile expert.

He says the handbags are tricky to get a species ID on, in part because he’s not allowed to cut them up. “Because if it turned out to be fake, the person could get it back. Then we’ve destroyed a 30 thousand dollar handbag. “

At this point, if you’ve guessed that DNA testing is an important tool in this lab, you’re right.

Ken Goodard, the lab’s director, opens a locked door. Inside this room a long row of industrial freezers contains 40 thousand DNA samples in tiny vials. “This is our known collection of tissues from all over the world. We do not have bigfoot or ET, but it’s a big universe out there. We’ll see. “

The lab can extract a little DNA from a handbag, and compare it to the DNA of endangered species in this collection. If the lab’s scientists have successfully identified a species, more traditional forensic work begins.  Machines here reveal hidden fingerprints on crime scene evidence, from antlers to poachers’ beer cans.  A staff of veterinarians examines corpses. Tabitha Viner runs the veterinary pathology department.  She’s wearing purple gloves. And preparing to cut a dead bird open. “Right now we have an immature bald eagle that was found with a group of other animals, including coyotes and a couple of other adult eagles.

Viner says agents suspect the animals were all poisoned. “But it could also be gunshot, it could also be a special place to be hit by a cars. Or any of a number of things. She finds a long rib bone in the eagle’s throat. “Also there’s a tuft of hair. That kind of brings the story together that this bird was feeding on a mammal at the time of death or shortly before death.” A clue, perhaps, that points toward poisoning.

Conservation groups say it this lab has made it possible to actually get prosecutions in smuggling and poaching cases. But Baker, the reptile expert, says it can feel like the smugglers have the upper hand. He says smugglers are discovering new species of lizards faster than scientists are. “And I want to tell the scientific community right away, hey, this is happening, this is being done or this may be a new species. But I can’t say anything about it because it’s an active law enforcement investigation.”

With 34,000 thousand species to protect, the lab has more work than it can handle.