Laboratory Investigation In Suspected Wildlife Crime Cases

According to the World Economic Forum, “With a value estimated up to $23 billion, illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative global crime after drugs, humans, and arms.” Wildlife crime has reached far beyond fulfilling the nutritional needs of communities and has taken the role of feeding the decadent lifestyles and gargantuan greed of consumers across the parts of the globe. The oppression and prosecution of alleged perpetrators of this crime are often unsuccessful or come to nothing because of many lenient legislations or varying rules around the world. But if this is the case then should we just watch this barbaric show silently? or should we at least try to put some minimal efforts to eliminate this? Although the use of forensic investigations dates long back in the history of human civilization, its application to veterinary sciences and wildlife forensic cases is a rather recent achievement.


Wildlife crimes occur in many forms such as illegal trading, hunting, killing, and damaging the health of the animals. It is now a little wonder that wildlife crime has been pegged as the fourth largest organized crime in the world which revealed to have impermeable supply systems that can put many multinational businesses to shame. Effective investigation of wildlife crime cases continues to pose an insuperable hurdle for all nations as judges and lawyers dealing with these cases still have a shallow understanding of wildlife crimes, the evidence against it, and the laws for it. Illegal killing of wildlife is not easy to detect and confirm and to prosecute this type of crime is even worse due to the lack of a systematic and comprehensive approach. However, the light exists at the end of this seemingly bleak tunnel as scientists are working day and night donning their white coats, purple gloves to join this global fight against wildlife crimes. People and organizations at different levels are involved starting from detecting a crime scene to prosecuting for the same. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the guidance of Ken Goddard is the world’s only laboratory dedicated to the investigation of these wildlife crime cases. It identifies, examines, and compares evidence using a variety of scientific instruments and procedures to connect the suspect to the crime scene, and the victim with physical evidence. The staff here are divided into two branches—administrative and forensic. The administrative branch is comprised of the administrative chief and staff members who handle IT, personnel, budget, evidence control, and maintenance duties. The forensics branch includes acting branch head Dr. Ed Espinoza, and 17 other scientists working in the lab’s five forensic teams: veterinary pathology, genetics, morphology, chemistry, and criminalistics.

This lab has more than 200 agents and wildlife inspectors throughout the US and about 150 foreign countries who are part of the United Nations CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Treaty. On average, the lab staff here analyses more than 8,000 items of evidence per year. The reason why the USFWS remains the only one of its kind in this world comes down to money that is spent to maintain the lab and its work as the annual operating budget of the lab is around $5 million.

Highlights Of A Case Analysed By The USFWS

The team of USFWS investigated a claim that the scales of pangolins which are threatened mammals mostly found in Africa and Asia contain an addictive painkilling substance known as tramadol. Pangolins are the only mammals in the world with protective scales that are known in Chinese medicine to have medicinal qualities. Due to this and for their meat, they are one of the most trafficked and exported mammals in the world. Many news outlets from southeast Asia reported that pangolin scales contained tramadol which further increased their popularity in the illegal trading industry.

Four of the USFWS’s scientists determined the validity of these claims by analysing the chemical signatures of scales from more than 100 pangolins. They found no traces of tramadol, only keratin was present which is commonly found in hair and nails but holds no medicinal qualities. The findings were published in Conservation Science and Practice in June 2019 and featured in a National Geographic article which debunked the claims. The researchers believe that this will be an important step in limiting the interest in illegal poaching and trafficking of pangolins.

Basics In Suspected Wildlife Crime Cases

Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)

An exhaustive and thorough crime scene investigation (CSI) is of utmost importance in any case of suspected illegal killing of wildlife. Failure to do so may result in evidence and information being lost or overlooked and may hamper not only the investigation but also the result in the court. Wildlife crimes investigations may pose certain challenges to the investigators and the procedures necessary at the site may not be as obvious as in other cases as the methods for securing, preserving, and searching are different. All crime sites involving dead animals do pose a health hazard to the investigators involved, thus each team-member processing the crime scene should have a PPE kit before entering the scene. Experts such as Veterinarians or biologists are also called to assist in these cases. All the evidence should be properly labelled for further laboratory investigations. 

People To Be Interviewed In Suspected Wildlife Crime Cases

Wildlife crime is mostly in rural settings with the local community living nearby often being more aware of things happening than in urban centres. Thus, to maximize the investigation scope in suspected cases, interviews of various persons and stakeholders can be useful. Persons that should be interviewed include:

• Local hunters or local wildlife authorities because they have a profound knowledge of the local wildlife and location.

• Landowner of the crime site

• Locals regularly using the area for recreational purposes (running, cycling, or dog-walking)

• Residents close to the crime site

Laboratory Investigations

Forensic scientists around the world are guided by this golden rule namely Lockard’s Exchange Principle which says that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. Forensic DNA typing allows scientists to examine the genetic sequences in DNA to identify the wild animal or plant species a particular product came from or to link biological evidence such as sweat, saliva, or hair to the individual criminal that left them at the crime scene. Forensic trichology enables scientists to analyse the unique structures of animal hair at the microscopic level to identify the species to which a confiscated skin or fur belongs. Forensic fingerprint analysis allows scientists to prove that a suspect handled the knife, gun, trap, vehicle, or any other object suspected of the commission of the offense. Forensic scientists can today retrieve fingerprints even from ivory, eggshells, and feathers enabling the investigators to directly link the true criminal.

Laboratory Investigation In Wildlife Crime Cases In India

India is one of the mega biodiverse countries in the world. This diversity is however under great stress from hunting, poaching, and organized illegal wildlife trade with global reach. If left unchecked, this will soon see the end of several species in the country. The Wildlife in India is protected under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 but it is not a complete code of procedure. Therefore, there is a lack of uniformity among the states in practices, procedures, and methodology in cases relating to wildlife crime investigation often leading to operational legal complications.

The Wildlife crime investigation methodology is still evolving in India. Therefore, there have been various requests from the State wildlife crime enforcement agencies to develop the skill and capacities of their investigating officers professionally and scientifically. Based on this felt need, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) tried to comply with the handbook to help the investigating officers of particularly the officers of State Forest Departments. The State forest department of Tamil Nadu is planning to set-up a full-fledged dedicated forensic laboratory for wildlife crime investigation to help crack these cases and increase the rate of conviction. The state government of Maharashtra is also planning to establish a forensic division in Nagpur. Other testing labs to examine the wildlife crime evidence are Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Hyderabad, Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) Lucknow, and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Dehradun.


These investigations can be challenging at times, moreover, the conviction rate in these types of crimes are even worse because of the pitfalls in varying legislations, lenient legislation, lack of knowledge, or even improper investigation but it is high time that we realize how important this is to protect the biodiversity and to maintain the balance on the Earth. The time has come to truly harness the power of forensics in our efforts and common intention to kill wildlife crime in its tracks.


What Kind Of Legislation Is There In India To Protect The Hunting And Poaching Of The Wildlife?

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is the umbrella act to prevent such kinds of crimes against the animals. However, wildlife law enforcement agencies operate at the state level in India under the control of the State Government.

Why Are Forensic Labs For Investigations Related To Wildlife Crime Cases So Minimal In Number Across The World?

This is because some countries do not even recognize this illegal hunting and poaching of animals as a crime so establishing forensic labs for investigations is still a far cry. There needs to be more awareness about this around the world.

Are The Results Of These Forensic Labs Trustworthy?

Yes, these results are determined after conducting a series of experiments with the most accurate instruments. So, they are reliable and trustworthy.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *