Forensic science and wildlife crimes

Sofia Kastrinou

It is usually believed that scientists do not care about animals’ welfare. It is claimed that they consider their lives valuable, as far as they are useful for their experiments. This is not the whole truth. There are indeed some scientists that are heartless when it comes to guinea pigs, but forensic scientists do care about animals.

A problem that has been bothering forensic scientists for years is wildlife crimes. The term wildlife crimes refers to a variety of crimes, such as illegal trade in animals, illegal hunting, and torturing and killing animals either because of cruelty or for personal benefits (for their meat, to make clothes or even for amusement parks such as zoos and circuses). The illegal trade of animal parts such as ivory used for jewellery is also considered a wildlife crime. The number of wildlife crimes has been increasing rapidly the past few years. A representative example is the number of seized rhinos in South Africa, which increased by 3,000 percent between 2007 and 2011. According to a 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report of UNODC (United Nations-Office on Drugs and Crime), the number of traded elephants and rhinos has decreased since 2011 because of the decline in the prices of ivory and rhino horns. Nevertheless, other types of poaching started to thrive, and between 2011 and 2017 the global number of seizures almost doubled. In 2017, the number of cases of illegal trade was six times higher than in 1999. One possible explanation for this general increase in the number of wildlife crimes is that this kind of crime provides a lot of money. Also, the chance that the involved individuals get caught is small, and even if they do, their punishment is bearable, even in the worst cases. According to a 2011 survey, it was estimated that the value of the illegal trade industry worldwide is approximately 10 billion USD. 

The increase in the number of wildlife crime cases had a global impact on fauna, mostly on endangered species. It is worth mentioning that in the past decade there was a decline of 90% in the number of tigers. Sadly, right now, a higher number of tigers live in captivity than in the wild. The black rhino has a similar percent decrease.

For the reasons mentioned above, the work of forensic scientists is vital. Forensic analysts are utilizing common forensic methods to solve wildlife crimes worldwide. 

Methods used by forensic analysts for solving wildlife crimes

The method that is most popular in the world of forensic science is the analysis of our genetic material, DNA. It is extensively used for wildlife crime cases too, because it can be found in every part of an animal, such as fur, feathers, nails, claws, teeth, bones, blood, hair, saliva, and even ivory. Information about the DNA of animals found at crime scenes has proven very useful for identifying the origin of an animal and their parentage. DNA found at the crime scene can also be helpful for connecting the findings to a specific individual of a species, or even to the perpetrator. 

DNA Analysis

Another less famous but also important part of the forensic analysis is the chemical component. Analysis of the chemical elements that a biological sample consists of, contribute to the identification of its geographical origin and age. The identification of species, geographical origin, and age is important for cases involving the illegal trade of animals or animal products and hunting out of season or in forbidden territories. Chemical analysis is also the method used for tracking poisonous substances in animals’ body fluids. Therefore, it can be determined whether an animal died from natural causes or by homicide.

Some other very important techniques are fingerprint analysis and ballistics. Fingerprint analysis secures fingerprints and other marks from traded animals and connects them to the perpetrator. Ballistics compares bullets with cartridge cases found in the crime scene with firearms secured afterwards. Documents can also be analysed to determine their authenticity if, for example, they are connected to animals’ trade. There is also a forensic practitioner called a forensic veterinary pathologist, that examines the animal’s body to conclude if the death was natural or caused by a human while discovering details such as the time of death. 

Some interesting examples… 

•Pangolin is one of the most traded species all over the world. During the past decade, approximately one million pangolins had been trafficked in Asia and they had been used for food but also for medical reasons. They are one of the most endangered species in the world. Recently, because of the significant decrease in pangolins in Asia, traffickers became interested in African pangolins.

Pangolin in Namibia, Africa

That’s why researchers at the University of Portsmouth in London have studied the different forensic methods and developed a forensic technique based on one of them. They created gelatin lifters, specifically to secure fingerprints and other marks from the pangolin. 

This method has been tested, and gelatin lifters were used on pangolins from several species. The former were read through a scanner specified for gelatin lifters. The results were hopeful with 89 percent of the analysed gelatin lifters giving clear finger marks.

Gelatin kits have been produced from the Portsmouth researchers and were given to the Wildlife Rangers in Kenya and Cameroon who are trying to put an end to the pangolin trade. This technology has been first used by the rangers for lifting fingerprints from ivory, and by the researchers for securing fingerprints from bird feathers.

Many crime experts and scientists, with a forensic scientist among them, claim that the simplicity of the method makes it special. They mention that there are thousands of cases of illegal trafficking in very dangerous places and the conventional fingerprint methods are very time-consuming. On the other hand, the gelatin lifter technique is faster and easier to handle.

• A few years ago the first forensic laboratory was established in Kenya. It was the first forensic and genetic laboratory in East Africa. Initially, scientists were testing different methods to evaluate their effectiveness. Now, they are mostly occupied with DNA tests, so concrete evidence can be presented to the court when it comes to wildlife crimes. This is important because in the past, most of the perpetrators were getting away with murder because of the lack of evidence. The lab analysts try to identify, for example, the animal species in suspected illegal trade of animal meat. They are also conducting tests on rare endangered species and animal products, such as ivory and rhino horns.

A mother and baby black rhino in Lewa Conservancy, Kenya.

The head of the laboratory is very optimistic and believes that in the next few years a lot of criminals are going to be prosecuted and there is going to be an increase in the number of endangered animals.

• There is a scientist called a forensic ornithologist who works with birds as crime victims. This position is so rare, that there are only two forensic ornithologists in the entire United States. The mission of the forensic ornithologist is to identify the species of the bird found in the crime scene. The identification is based on findings from the crime scene (bones, feathers or even the corpse itself) and is done either immediately or sometimes needs further examination. 

After the species is identified, other forensic analysts proceed with additional examination (e.g. DNA analysis) to reveal important information, such as the cause and manner of death. Most of the birds have been shot, trafficked, or even killed to become accessories and charms. Pepper Trail, one of the two American forensic ornithologists, has focused on chuparosas, love charms sold at markets in Mexico made from dried hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds: Left image: Ecuador, Latin America Right image: Costa Rica, Africa


Considering the information above, it can be concluded that worthwhile efforts have been made in this field. We hope that more action will be taken for the protection of more species.

Sources: International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development, National Geographic, Transparency International, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), World Wildlife Crime Report