CSI: Forensic Science for Wildlife

Wildlife crime is increasing, and not just in Africa – it is a global problem. Combating wildlife crime is essential if we want to preserve our natural heritage for the future of our children.

When my family and I visited Victoria Falls recently we made an appointment to visit the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust’s laboratory, a member of the African Wildlife Forensics Network and soon to be registered as an internationally recognized forensics laboratory.  This was very interesting as I had not realised that there was a forensic laboratory in Zimbabwe. I thought all evidence collected from wildlife crimes had to be sent over our borders for processing. This still is partly true, and although the Wildlife Trust has quite a bit of equipment, more is desperately required, and much evidence is still sent out of the country for analysis. This is time-consuming and the courts often end up releasing the culprits before evidence can be submitted in order to secure a conviction.
 

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Samples being prepared and inspected in the wildlife disease and forensics laboratory.

“Forensic” refers to the use of science or technology in an investigation and the establishment of facts or evidence for a court of law, be it due to poaching, trade in exotic species, illicit logging, protected species persecution or any other type of illegal exploitation of flora and fauna.
 

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Testing a sample collected from a suspected cyanide poisoning case.

The biggest conservation issue in Southern Africa today is the malicious use of poison to poach elephant for their ivory, and wildlife forensics has become increasingly important in crime scene investigations because of this. Poisons such as cyanide are used to lace water holes, salt-licks and baited fruit. Cyanide is readily accessible in the gold mining industry. Unfortunately it is not just the elephants that suffer. The poison contaminates the source and the carcass and adversely impacts on the ecosystem, particularly scavengers such as vultures. Populations of eight out of 11 African vulture species have declined by 60 percent in the past 30 years, and have recently been uplisted to “endangered” or “critically endangered” on the IUCN Redlist because of this problem.
 

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This vulture died next to the carcass of an elephant poisoned by cyanide.

Forensic science can be used to track and identify criminals using evidentiary analysis, be it DNA, trace evidence (hair or feathers, animal tracks) classification of animal products or imported, exported or traded goods, or the simple recognition of what constitutes indisputable, demonstrative evidence. While the use of forensics in wildlife and environmental crime is not the sole answer, it is one weapon in the fight for the protection of all species. The long-term survival of our ecosystem and natural environment may depend on it.

Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust does an amazing job, but as a non-profit organisation, and with the increasing need for wildlife forensics work on the ground, funds are desperately needed. With more equipment and resources, their laboratory will be able to analyse samples submitted from wildlife crime scenes for faster turn round in the courts, ensuring less criminals are released due to lack of vital forensic evidence.

As well as a wildlife rehabilitation centre and laboratory, Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust is also a field station from which veterinarians and graduate students can study zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted across species and boundaries. Tuberculosis, anthrax, rabies and brucellosis (to name a few) can cause epidemic crashes of keystone and other wildlife species, resulting in serious socio-economic and public health consequences for southern Africa.
 

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Collecting blood samples from members of a herd of buffalo to screen for diseases.

Another area of expertise is the cataloguing or “biobanking” of the genetic makeup of rhinos which will help protect them. Rhinos have been reduced to critically endangered numbers throughout most of Africa and dehorning them has become an important tool to deter poaching. During the dehorning process Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust takes blood and tissue samples from rhino in Zimbabwe to assess the health of these animals and catalogue their DNA, helping conservationists make husbandry and relocation decisions. It will also facilitate assisting the prosecution with scientific evidence in rhino horn trafficking cases.

Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust also runs a domestic pet vaccination program in collaboration with Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe (VAWZ), vaccinating and sterilising pets in the Victoria Falls rural and urban areas to prevent the spread of diseases like rabies, distemper, ehrlichia and leptospira to endangered or threatened carnivore species including wild dog, cheetah and lion.

Next week I shall describe the incredible work being undertaken by Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust in the community.

Please follow VFWT’s Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts for more information on the day-to-day operations of this excellent organisation.

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