Can Forensic Science Help Contribute to Wildlife Conservation?

Wildlife crimes represent a huge threat to the future of our planet. If they are not combated, we will likely see more animals made extinct and more habitats destroyed. A new field of science, wildlife forensics, has emerged in response to this crisis. Here, we discuss what wildlife forensics is, what it aims to tackle, and what methods it uses.

Can Forensic Science Help Contribute to Wildlife Conservation?

Image Credit: Dirk Daniel Mann/Shutterstock.com

What Are Wildlife Crimes?

Wildlife crime is threatening biodiversity, harming the environment, putting animals under threat of extinction, harming economies and even costing human lives. While wildlife crime is perhaps not as well understood by the layperson as other types of crime, it is undoubtedly a huge problem that threatens the future of the planet.

Crimes that breach legislation that protects wildlife species, such as illegal wildlife trade, poaching, poisoning, illegal killing, and unauthorized destruction of habitats, all fall under the umbrella of wildlife crimes. The illegal wildlife trade alone, which accounts for just a segment of wildlife crime, is worth an estimated £15 billion ($18.5 billion) annually, making it the fourth largest illegal trade in the world, after the drug trade, people smuggling, and counterfeiting.

The repercussions of wildlife crimes are huge. They have heavily depleted the population of numerous species, with some being brought to the brink of extinction. As a result, biodiversity is declining, with an increasing number of species becoming threatened or extinct. While animals like elephants, tigers, and rhinos are well known for being under threat, there are many more that are at risk of extinction.

The use of forensic science has emerged as a prominent tool to tackle wildlife crime.

The Emerging Field of Wildlife Forensics

Although wildlife crime presents a huge global problem, few resources exist to address it. Many countries do not have enough people employed in roles such as conservation officers, rangers, and law enforcement personnel to respond to the overwhelming need presented by wildlife crimes. Furthermore, many poorer countries face the additional challenge of scarce funds to funnel into operations to combat wildlife crime. Finally, even in countries with sufficient financial resources, there is often a lack of knowledge or awareness of wildlife crimes coupled with inexperience in handling investigations into these crimes.

As a result, a relatively new field of science, known as wildlife forensics, has emerged to tackle wildlife crime. The field is rapidly growing, particularly in regions with scarce resources. Much of this development is thanks to advancements in DNA analysis technology, which have already been successfully applied to human crime.

Wildlife forensics can be determined as applying forensic science to enforce laws involving wildlife protection. It incorporates a number of scientific disciplines, including biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, pathology, taxonomy, toxicology, and more. It is a field of criminal investigation that often deals with using forensic science to determine how an animal has been killed, what the animal species is, how many were killed, and who is responsible for the killing. A wildlife forensics scientist may also be asked to determine where the animal originated from if it came from captivity or the wild, and other factors such as the animal’s age.

To answer these questions, wildlife forensics rely on a number of methods, those which analyze a sample of the victim’s remains, such as the blood, claws, feathers, fur, hair, teeth, or tissue. Methods are also used to analyze weapons that were used in the crime or materials that contributed to the deaths of the animals, such as poison. Techniques used in wildlife forensics often fall into one of two categories: DNA techniques or morphological techniques.

DNA techniques commonly extract DNA from the biological sources mentioned above, use one of many PCR techniques to amplify it, and then it is sequenced. In most cases, mitochondrial DNA is used for this process. Once sequenced, scientists can build a victim or perpetrator profile from microsatellite markers. This technique can help identify the victim, their family members, or a perpetrator of a wildlife crime.

Morphological methods, which include gross osteology, microscopy, and necropsy, are most often used to ascertain the cause and manner of death. In gross osteology, scientists use clues given by the unique appearance of bones to make identifications. Bones can also be used to identify a species, as well as give important information about a crime, such as how many animals were killed.

Microscopy methods are used when fragmentary material is recovered. One particular success of this technique is in its application in identifying traded ivory. Another application of the technique in wildlife forensics includes species identification via hair analysis.

Finally, necropsy, analogous to autopsies in humans, is used to help determine the cause of death as well as identify the victim.

Protecting Wildlife, Protecting Humans

The relentless exploitation of wildlife at the hands of humans has led to a disastrous loss in biodiversity across the globe. Wildlife crimes not only threaten animal life but also pose a significant threat to human health, as was highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, around 75% of emerging infectious diseases are transferred from humans to animals. With this in mind, it is likely that the field of wildlife forensics will continue its rapid development as it becomes more established.

References and Further Reading

Jota Baptista, C. et al. (2022) Wildlife Forensic Sciences: A tool to nature conservation towards a one health approach. Forensic Sciences, 2(4), pp. 808–817. https://www.mdpi.com/2673-6756/2/4/58

Tackling international wildlife crime [Online] WWF. Available at: https://www.wwf.org.uk/what-we-do/projects/tackling-international-wildlife-crime 

The Importance of Forensic Science in Wildlife Investigations [Online] University of Florida Health. Available at: https://online.forensics.med.ufl.edu/online-graduate-programs/certificate-programs/wildlife-forensic-sciences-and-conservation/the-importance-of-forensic-science-in-wildlife-investigations/ 

Tobe, S.S. and Linacre, A. (2010) DNA typing in wildlife crime: Recent developments in species identification. Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 6(3), pp. 195–206. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12024-010-9168-7

Wildlife trade & crime [Online] WWF. Available at: https://www.wwf.eu/what_we_do/biodiversity/wildlife_crime/ 

World Wildlife Crime Report [Online] UNODC. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/wildlife/2020/World_Wildlife_Report_2020_9July.pdf 

Last Updated: Jun 5, 2023

Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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