CSI: The Wild - reporting on illegal wildlife trafficking

THE illegal trafficking of wildlife is driving some species to near extinction. Now a team based at Edinburgh Zoo is using forensics straight out of a top US crime drama to help halt the sickening trade.

THE illegal trafficking of wildlife is driving some species to near extinction. Now a team based at Edinburgh Zoo is using forensics straight out of a top US crime drama to help halt the sickening trade.

At the heart of Edinburgh Zoo, not far from the rhino enclosure, sits a gleaming white lab that could have come straight from one of the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation TV shows. Like its fictional counterpart, it contains equipment for DNA profiling and sequencing and its elite scientists are at the heart of the fight against crime. But the victims Dr Rob Ogden and his colleague Dr Ross McEwing are faced with are not human, they are animals, and the $20bn global racket they are trying to halt involves the trafficking not of arms or drugs, but wildlife.

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So lucrative is the market for exotic animals, and so low the risk of being caught, that some species are being driven to near extinction. Some animals, predominantly birds and reptiles, are being sold as pets. Others are being slaughtered for meat or body parts, which are used in pills or potions.

The pangolin, a scaly anteater whose meat is used for soup, and whose scales are believed to have medicinal properties, is being shipped out of south-east Asia by the crateload, and has been all but wiped out in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The WildGenes lab, where Ogden and McEwing are based, was built 18 months ago for conservation work at the zoo and beyond. When working for WildGenes, the pair, along with their colleague Dr Helen Senn, are involved in using DNA to monitor and influence breeding programmes, and in larger projects, such as the initiative to reintroduce beavers to Scotland.

Prior to its founding, the scientists were already directors of Trace, a non-governmental organisation which brings together forensic experts and enforcement agencies in an attempt to crack down on the trafficking of wildlife. In particular, they have spearheaded the ASEAN-WEN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Wildlife Enforcement Network) project, which aims to help countries in Southeast Asia tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

In the past it has been difficult for these countries to crack down on the problem, partly because of a lack of political willpower, and partly because of a lack of equipment and knowledge. The situation is also complicated by the fact that – as with the drugs and arms trade – those at the frontline of the trafficking are not the ones either organising or profiting from the crime.

Ogden and McEwing are helping to improve the situation, not only by lending their expertise on particular cases, but also by developing more advanced techniques and by training local scientists so they can begin to carry out forensic work themselves. “The difference between human forensics and animal forensics is that with humans usually you know a crime has been committed and you need to prove who has carried it out, whereas with animals you tend to know who is responsible but need to prove they have actually committed a crime,” says Ogden.

Proving an offence has taken place is a challenge since the rules governing the trade of wildlife are complex. Whether a transaction is legal depends not only on the exact species involved, but its country of origin (different countries will have different rules) and whether it’s been captive-bred, so genetic testing can be crucial.

When an inspection of a restaurant in Malaysia uncovered a freezer-full of suspicious meat, for example, DNA tests were carried out to establish they were, as suspected, from the protected clouded monitor lizard and convictions followed. Most recently, the Edinburgh-based scientists have been investigating a zoo in Thailand, which is suspected of laundering wild animals under the pretence that they have been captive-bred.

“It focused on a tiger, which was supposed to have produced two cubs in captivity, but the facts didn’t really stack up,” Ogden says. “The tiger had come from a different zoo, it wasn’t pregnant when it left, yet it had cubs almost as soon as it arrived, so we helped the newly-established Thai wildlife forensics lab to run parentage tests, which demonstrated the cubs were not from this tiger.”

In cases where an animal is suspected to have been poached, it’s a question of trying to match DNA from blood samples taken from the scene of the crime with the DNA profile of the recovered animal. “If they don’t match then we can say 100 per cent it’s not the same animal,” says Ogden. “If they do match, then we can say they are likely to be from the same animal. The trick – as with human forensics – is to make the DNA profile large enough and complicated enough to be able to say the chances of them not being the same animal are one billion to one.”

Of course, DNA testing is at its most effective when it is carried out on the animals themselves. Once body parts have been processed to make medicine it becomes more difficult. The DNA gets mixed with other species, there’s less of it and it begins to break down.

With the advance of science, however, it is still possible. Recently Ogden and McEwing helped develop a genetic test for bear bile, which is taken from the gallbladders of bears and used in traditional Chinese medicine. The practice is a threat to the long-term survival of the Asiatic black bear, the trade which is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Being able to test the medicines for bear bile helps enforcement agencies bring prosecutions against those responsible for the illegal trade of body parts. Useful though it is, however, it can only be used to test for that particular substance. Ogden says scientists in Australia are now developing next-generation sequencing that will enable scientists to identify every component of a particular medicine in a single test.

In terms of helping South-east Asia build its own capacity for wildlife forensics, Ogden and McEwing identified labs in several countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, which would most benefit from their support.

In 2010, they ran a course in Kuala Lumpur and last year four of those who had attended were invited to the WildGenes lab for three weeks’ intensive training.

Closer to home, Ogden and McEwing have also been involved in investigating the theft of birds of prey, particularly Peregrine falcons, and an attempt to smuggle two rhino horns out of the UK to China.

The horns, worth up to £100,000, were discovered in the possession of antiques dealer Donald Allison by UK Border Agency officers at Manchester Airport in 2009. They had been hidden inside a specially constructed bronze sculpture of a bird on a log. DNA tests established the horns came from Simba, a rhino which had died of natural causes at Colchester Zoo.

Simba had been sent to an abattoir for incineration, but his head was stolen and sold on for £400. As a result of the evidence from Trace, Allison was convicted and jailed for 12 months.

As they are falsely thought to have medicinal properties and sold as a cure for cancer, the illegal trade in rhino horns is so lucrative – and the poaching of the animals so prevalent – their numbers have drastically declined.

When not working on the ASEAN-WEN project, which is funded by the Darwin Initiative and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Ogden focuses on conservation.

As well as working with animals in the zoo, he has been involved in monitoring Scotland’s population of golden eagles and in developing new DNA techniques for understanding beaver population structure and genetic diversity. So far more than 100 billion bases of genetic code have been sequenced for beavers in Norway and Germany. The research will be used to help select founder individuals if the current beaver reintroduction trial is rolled out to other parts of the country.

At the moment, however, the scientists are up to their eyes organising the latest ASEAN-WEN project, a two-day seminar in Bangkok next week, which will look at what their work has achieved and will see some of those they have trained give their first ever presentation.

Leaving Ogden to his preparations, I walk back to the car park and pass an Indian rhino lumbering across his compound like some remnant from a prehistoric era. It is reassuring to think work being carried out in the WildGenes lab is helping to secure the survival of his and so many other endangered species beyond the 21st century.