Prosecution of a suspect for animal trafficking requires establishing that person’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That means establishing that a crime occurred and then linking the suspect to it.
With trafficking of illegal wildlife products, many of the items bought and sold look nothing like the animal they came from. That makes it difficult to prove they came from a species whose trade is illegal. As a result, identifying the victim is an essential first step in wildlife crime investigations. The identity, or species, of the animal remains must be established to determine which, if any, laws have been violated. Only then can a prosecutor link the suspect to a crime.
Before the creation in 1989 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, state and federal wildlife law enforcement officers were at a distinct disadvantage in the court system. It wasn’t that they didn’t have the evidence. They just couldn’t find anyone to identify it who would testify.
Those scientists who were willing to examine the evidence, such as an ornithologist at a museum or biologist at a research institute or university, typically refused to present and defend their results in court, which was a necessary step for conviction. That made their evaluations worthless. Even if they had been willing to testify, other complicating factors would have come into play. Unlike regular crime labs, the museums and universities who did the analysis typically had inadequate security and procedures. That meant they could not maintain a secure chain-of-custody so that during subsequent legal proceedings the defendant could have argued the evidence was corrupted. Other times researchers had competing commitments that took precedence, so much so that their results would have arrived too late for trial, or else they could not prove the species of origin, making the results inconclusive and therefore of no use.
While regular labs didn’t have these issues – they had appropriate procedures to maintain secure chain-of-custody and they were accustomed to testifying in criminal proceedings—none could justify working an animal case over a human one.
As a result, because they didn’t have access to forensic analysis of physical evidence, wildlife enforcement agents couldn’t link suspects to their crime beyond a reasonable doubt. That let traffickers get away with murder.
But that’s changed. The creation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Forensics Laboratory gave agents access to the forensic analysis of physical evidence and expert witness testimony that is critical for convicting wildlife poachers and traffickers