New Scientist reviews Animal Investigtors
Review: Animal Investigators by Laurel A. Neme
25 March 2009 by Henry Nicholls
Magazine issue 2701.

ILLEGAL wildlife trafficking is worth an estimated $20 billion a year. That makes it the third most lucrative criminal activity, coming in just behind drug and human trafficking and, incredibly, ahead of arms smuggling. This is a stark reminder (as if we needed one) that there are people out there intent on getting rich irrespective of the cost to others with whom they share this fragile planet.

Animal Investigators documents this black market in unflinching and often depressing detail. But the book is more than just a journey into the criminal underworld, a litany of dismal statistics or a roll-call of cowardly, greedy intermediaries. Instead, Laurel A. Neme centres her book on a more inspiring place: the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon, the world’s only laboratory dedicated to solving crimes against wildlife.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, in which time it has dealt with some 10,000 cases. In Animal Investigators, Neme recounts three of these: Alaskan walruses slaughtered for their ivory tusks, black bears killed for gall bladders prized in Chinese medicine, and rare tropical birds hunted for feathers to make traditional Amazonian artefacts.

Although self-contained, the three tales combine to reveal the lengths to which the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must go to secure a conviction. It takes a lot of scientific ingenuity, for example, to confirm that highly processed animal parts came from an endangered species, or to prove that a dealer has not wriggled through one of the many legal loopholes available to them.

Neme walks the reader through the logic of each case, distilling the scientific method with clarity. Remarkably, she also manages to communicate how the science itself works, with step-by-step accounts of the lab work involved, including a brave six-page description of high-pressure liquid chromatography. That such passages work is testimony to her engaging narrative style.

Animal Investigators shows the many ways FWS agents build up a case, including forging undercover relationships with dealers, conducting sting operations and gathering evidence for analysis back in the lab. Although the book’s focus on the FWS means it will have most appeal in the US, Neme does touch on the global nature of this problem.

It is all too easy to ignore the terrifying scale and cruelty involved in animal trafficking, which is why this is a book everyone should read. By concentrating on the exciting CSI-style investigations of the FWS, Neme has found a compelling way to air this inconvenient truth. “Bears can’t protest. And dead birds can’t complain,” she writes. “It’s up to us to sustain their ability to speak.”