Wildlife Detectives

January 22, 2016
CAUGHT Collectors will not be able to buy these "trophies."
COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

It was June 6, 1989, and President George H.W. Bush had just stopped elephant ivory from coming into the United States. A wildlife inspector spotted a shipment of 200 ivory buttons. The person shipping them said they came from the tusks of a mammoth. Ivory from the extinct ancestor of the elephant was legal.

Was it elephant or mammoth ivory? The inspector called Ed Espinoza for help. He worked at the first wildlife crime lab in the U.S. After studying elephant and mammoth ivory under a microscope, Espinoza discovered that they were different.

BOB PENNELL—THE MEDFORD MAIL TRIBUNE/AP

That detective work helped stop the trade in elephant ivory disguised as mammoth ivory. "It turned out to be a simple solution," Espinoza told TFK.

On the Case

The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab, in Ashland, Oregon, tackles up to 900 such cases each year. Every day, packages arrive filled with items ranging from rhino horns to crocodile-skin boots. All are evidence in criminal investigations. Scientists dust the items for fingerprints. They examine them under microscopes. They look for the cause of death. The scientists' aim is to answer two questions: "What is it?" and "Who did it?" Their work has stopped sellers of rare animal parts and put elephant killers behind bars.

ILLEGAL Items are held in Commerce City, Colorado.

COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

The facility in Oregon is the official crime lab for the 180 nations that signed an agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It protects about 1,000 species of rare plants and animals. "These are the most endangered species, and no trade is allowed whatsoever," Espinoza says.

He has worked at the lab since its creation, in 1989. He says that without the lab to prove a crime has been committed, the illegal wildlife trade would be out of control.

He offers the case of bear gallbladders as an example. One goes for as much as $60,000 in Southeast Asia. A smuggler might tell authorities that illegal bear gallbladders are legal pig gallbladders. Without proof from the lab, the smuggler would get away with a crime. "If we did not have the very strong laws that we have, the North American bear population would be wiped out in about a year," says Espinoza.

Do Your Part

You, too, can stop criminals. Laurel Neme wrote a book called Animal Investigators on the wildlife forensics lab. She says you should never buy illegal animal products or wild pets.

CRIME SCENE The bones in these drawers will be examined by scientists.

COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

After a video of a slow loris got more than 5 million views, everyone wanted to own a big-eyed furry mammal. But don't be tempted! Neme advises you to think: "That animal shouldn't be in captivity." That view may stop a crime and make the job of scientists in Oregon just a bit easier.