By Rebekah K. Murray
They were dead: dozens of elephants with missing tusks. It was 1992, and Tanzania’s chief wildlife officer, Musa Mohammed Lyimo, suspected that the elephants had been killed for their ivory tusks. But how could he prove it?
Eight years later, Laurel Neme (’85, M.P.P. ’86) sat in Lyimo’s office and heard what happened. Scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory discovered that the poachers used agricultural chemicals as poison. The poison was injected into pumpkins, a favorite treat for elephants, and then scattered around watering holes. With poison, the tusks easily slip out of the elephant a few days after the animal dies.
While explaining this to Neme, Lyimo’s phone rang. There was a report of hippos being poisoned for their ivory teeth. “I realized this wasn’t going to stop, and I wanted to do something about it,” says Neme, an environmental public policy consultant at the time.
“Almost every protected species is affected,” Neme says, adding that wildlife smuggling may be worth as much as $20 billion annually, ranking just behind drugs and human trafficking
Neme began researching and writing about the cases sent to the world’s only wildlife forensics lab, which opened in 1989 in Ashland, Oregon. Her book, Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, was published by Scribner last spring. It’s written as a true-crime novel and shows how forensic science can link poachers and dealers to their crimes. Elephants are just one species affected. The illegal trade includes bear gallbladders, rare feathers, tiger teeth, and more. “Almost every protected species is affected,” Neme says, adding that wildlife smuggling may be worth as much as $20 billion annually, ranking just behind drugs and human trafficking.
What’s more, poachers aren’t just poverty-stricken lone hunters, Neme says. Organized crime networks and terrorist groups are involved. News reports have accused a Somali warlord, Sudan’s Janjaweed militia, rogue military gangs in Congo, and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militants of poaching to fund their activities.
To prove that a crime has occurred, wildlife agents must show that the affected animals are protected species. That’s where the lab comes in. Just like in police crime labs, scientists at the wildlife forensics lab use evidence such as fingerprints, tire tracks, bullets, gunshot residue, poisons, and DNA to reveal what might have happened to the animal and to identify possible suspects. But the wildlife scientists have an extra job. If they’re given a gallbladder, paw, feather, or even pills, they have to identify which animal species the sample is from. The 24 scientists at the wildlife forensics lab deal with over 30,000 species and handle an average of 600 cases a year.
“I hope people will become aware that wildlife trafficking is really an issue,” Neme says.
It’s also not a problem confined to Africa or Asia. Remember the dead elephants? Who would think of buying those tusks?
“The United States is one of the biggest importers of illegal elephant ivory,” Neme says. “I hope people will start to think about what they buy.”