On the Trail of Wildlife Crime

Forensics lab backs up law enforcement work by sleuthing for evidence

OVER the years, much of mankind - in law if not in fact - has learned to respect other species and protect them when necessary. More than 100 nations are cooperating through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna. The recent international ban on commercial imports of ivory was a major step in protecting the African elephant, whose numbers plummeted by more than half over the past decade thanks largely to poachers.

But the worldwide trade in wildlife and wildlife products still amounts to an estimated $5 billion a year, with the United States accounting for about one-fifth of the total.

Bears are slaughtered for their medicinally valued gall bladders and other body parts. Walruses fall to high-powered rifles (then chainsaws) for their tusks. A South Korean ship, stopped in a recent drug search off San Francisco, was found to be carrying eight stuffed green sea turtles, which are endangered. A few days earlier, a couple in northern California were arrested when they tried to sell two black rhinoceros horns (worth up to $30,000 a piece ground up as aphrodisiacs) to undercover agents.

Despite the carnage and plunder, law enforcement officials around the world often have had a hard time making their cases stick in court, particularly when the evidence was an ivory trinket or a single feather. The forensics support - the laboratory sleuth work often crucial to prosecution when man is the victim - just was not available. Until now, that is.

Now there is a lab with the latest equipment and a team of determined scientists dedicated to backing up the law enforcement agencies working on behalf of animals. And though it's been in operation for little more than a year, the US Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory (dubbed the ``Scotland Yard of Wildlife Crime'') already is receiving international notice.

That's because it's the only one of its kind in the world. And also because it has made some scientific breakthroughs. (See accompanying story on how to tell the difference between mastodon and elephant ivory.)

``This is the first full-service lab anywhere,'' says director Kenneth Goddard, who spent 10 years in police work in southern California before joining the Fish & Wildlife Service in 1979. ``Without the textbooks, without the procedures, we're starting out blind. For scientists, it's like landing on a new planet.''

At the same time, he notes, the principles involved are very similar to more traditional forensics: identify the victim and determine the cause of death, then link together the suspect, victim, and scene of the crime.

``The theories, the overall ethics of the profession are the same,'' he says. ``The only difference is our victim is an animal.''

MUCH of the work thus far has been the methodical gathering of skins, skeletons, fur, feathers, claws, and teeth so that precise comparisons can be made when evidence comes in. This work falls to biologists like Beth Ann Gilroy, who worked as a museum technician specializing in birds at the Smithsonian Institution. ``We're looking for characteristics that are species-specific, no matter what part we have,'' she says.

Serology specialists here use standard methods of immunology and protein electrophoresis (moving suspended particles through a fluid by force) as well as more advanced DNA techniques using information from chromosomes - to make identifications from specimens like big-game meat or dried blood from a hunter's clothing. In one such case, the lab got an accused hunter off the hook by proving that he had shot a deer and not a protected species of mountain goat.

The tougher cases involve crime experts who use such instruments as spectrophotometers (which compare the intensities of corresponding colors of two spectra) and chromatographs (which produce composite color tones). Their pride and joy is a quarter million-dollar scanning electron microscope, which, in fact, was designed by Scotland Yard for crime solving.

The sobering reason for all the high-tech gadgetry is here as well: large storerooms full of seized contraband such as cowboy boots and handbags, feathered headdresses, stringed instruments made from turtle shells, and a freezer full of dead animals yet to be preserved.

While most of the work is done in the spanking-new $3.5 million laboratory here in Ashland, Ore., there is field work as well.

Recently, Mr. Goddard and chief criminologist Edgard Espinoza traveled to Alaska where hundreds of mutilated walruses have been found. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, only Eskimos may kill walruses - and this only for subsistence and to produce native handicrafts. The suspicion is that some Eskimos have been selling the raw ivory, sometimes in exchange for drugs. Like most cases the lab is involved in, this one is yet to be resolved, so officials are reluctant to discuss it in detail.

HOW different cultures treat and use animals is a tricky issue, Goddard says. ``Is the use of a high-powered rifle part of the evolution of Eskimo culture?'' he asks. ``Or killing walruses to feed sled dog teams when they now use snowmobiles?''

In South Korea (which has not signed the international wildlife treaty), gall bladders from bears are believed to be medicinal and fetch $1,000 or more a piece.

The lab also oversees the National Eagle Repository. Talons and feathers from bald and golden eagle carcasses collected by law enforcement agencies are sent here for distribution to Indians for use in religious ceremonies.

Eventually, the dozen or so scientists here can expect to be called as expert witnesses in court cases. Their work thus has to stand the rigors of legal as well as scientific scrutiny. Knowing this, Goddard's staff does its work with strict professional objectivity.

There's a feeling of environmental mission here. Goddard's office is decorated with large photos of whales and dolphins. Gary Larson's ``Far Side'' cartoons, with their weird animal heroes, are tacked up here and there. A button on one lab coat reads ``Only elephants should wear ivory.''

For Ken Goddard, who unwinds by writing crime novels (Bantam Books has published three), setting out on a new police venture in the animal kingdom is a fresh change from the years he spent dealing with man's inhumanity to man.

``It's easily the most satisfying job I've ever had,'' he says. ``It's frustrating to see the dead animals, but I really have a sense that I can make a difference with this laboratory.''

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