By examining these cases, Neme delineates not only the intriguing science behind the solving of these crimes, but also, from a fresh angle, the issues surrounding endangered animals, and the human cultures that live among them.

The Three Cases:

  1. Alaskan walrus slaughtered for their ivory;
  2. Illegal Trade in black bear gall bladders used in traditional Chinese medicine; and
  3. Illegal trade in Brazilian Amazon Indian feather art threatening jaguars, Scarlet Macaws, Harpy Eagles, and other endangered tropical birds;

Walrus poaching

Dead Walrus on Alaskan CoastlineFrom his plane, Al Crane scanned the Alaskan coastline.  Scattered on the beach below, hundreds of dead, headless walruses had washed up on shore.  As the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nome agent since 1972, Crane had witnessed this gruesome sight many times before.  His hard work had earned him a well-deserved reputation for approachability, fairness and understanding of the Native culture.

At a recent meeting, leaders of the Alaska Native walrus hunting community had urged him to investigate illegal walrus hunting.  While most Alaskan Natives scorned “headhunting,” —killing a walrus simply for its ivory tusks—Crane could see numerous examples from the seat of his plane.  Local residents typically blamed the Russian villages on the other side of the Bering Strait.  They claimed time and waves brought the dead animals to Alaska and that local Inuit hunters took the tusks – the only part that could be salvaged from the decomposing bodies.

Had the animals died naturally and then had their heads cut off?  Or had they been killed for their tusks?  Did Russian bullets kill the animals?  Had Alaskans?  The situation had been going on for years, and it was time to put an end to it.  Crane needed definitive answers.

Normally, Crane would have sent the items to the lab for analysis.  This time, the sheer size and number of the bodies forced a different approach.  A team of forensic scientists, composed of FWS Lab Director Ken Goddard, Deputy Director Edgard (Ed) Espinoza, and veterinary medical examiner Richard (Dick) Stroud, would go to the scene.

Illegal Trade in Black Bear Gallbladders

Bear GallbladdersBill Harrison took the three plastic containers, each filled with what looked like 60 very large dried figs, from the seller.  As an undercover FWS Special Agent in Nevada posing as a trader, Harrison now had the contraband he needed to arrest the man for illegal trade in black bear gallbladders.

Demand for bear parts has already decimated the Asian black bear population, prompting the poaching of the bears’ North American cousins.  The market for bear bile thrives throughout Asia, where traditional medicine uses it to treat liver complaints and reduce fevers, swelling, and pain.  Western medicine uses a chemically synthesized form of a major bear bile acid (tauro ursodeoxycholic acid) to dissolve gallstones and to treat cancers, liver cirrhosis and other ailments.

Although the North American black bear population, with about 700,000 animals, isn’t endangered, it is under increasing threat – both from overseas and from growing domestic demand (due to the rise in the Asian populations in the United States).  The market is extremely lucrative:  In the early 1990’s, a seller in Idaho could receive $15 for a dried gall bladder.  By the time it reached Korea, it could be worth $55,000.  Ounce-for-ounce, it is the highest value commodity on the black market—20 times the price of heroin.

In much of North America, where it is still legal (with a license) to hunt the relatively plentiful bears; 1,500 are killed legally a year.  More than twice that number dies from illegal poaching.  The Nevada undercover field operation hoped to stop, or at least reduce, the poaching.

Armed with what seemed like incontrovertible proof from Harrison, prosecutors in the US Attorney’s office in Denver quickly charged the seller.  The penalty, however, depended on confirmation that the gall bladders came from bear, and not some other animal.  So Harrison boxed them up and sent them to the FWS forensic lab for analysis.

Illegal Trade in Brazilian Amazon Indian Feather Artifacts

Opening Boxes of Evidence at the LabThe plain cardboard carton gave no hint of the treasure inside. Wrapped in newspaper, and nestled within the box, it had journeyed thousands of miles, from the remote reaches of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to an art gallery in Gainesville, Florida, before coming to rest here, in the evidence room of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon.

Over the past year, FWS Special Agent Daniel LeClair, posing as a private art collector interested in beautiful and symbolic Amazon Indian pieces, had built the trust of Milan Hrabovsky, owner of Rain Forest Crafts in Gainesville, Florida. In his initial email contact, LeClair claimed he met Hrabovsky at a recent craft market exhibition.

Traditionally, indigenous communities in Brazil’s Amazon used both elaborate and simple feather crowns, headdresses, arm bands, and masks in their ceremonies and celebrations. Young boys wore them when being initiated into manhood; shamans donned them to heal their tribespeople.

At first, collectors had purchased well-used, older pieces, which were valued for their authenticity. As demand blossomed, budding entrepreneurs capitalized on the expanding market, seeking out indigenous communities to make new pieces in the traditional style. They also “spruced up” older pieces, adding large, colorful feathers to make them more striking – and expensive. Today, tourists in Brazil can readily find Indian feather art for sale in museum shops and collectors can easily buy them over the internet. This new industry makes traditional art forms valuable – which could provide much-needed income to impoverished communities. Instead, it often just finances the middlemen.

Rueimon Head DressThe sharp increase in demand for feather pieces threatens their source –the already endangered parrots, macaws, and other birds who sport the exotic plumage. While traditional communities used to keep some types of birds in captivity as a way to retrieve their molted feathers, the practice doesn’t make good economic sense: it’s easier, and cheaper, to just kill them and pluck them bald.

Hrabovsky sent LeClair a photograph of a ceremonial crown. Did those feathers come from a protected species? LeClair needed the crown itself.  So, undercover, LeClair bought and shipped it to the forensic lab. For over a year, Le Clair had struggled to get to this point: now it was up to the lab.