11 April 2012

CSI wildlife at work

Illegal trade in endangered species is booming, but Australian scientists are among those battling it.
rhino poaching ivory horns

Sophisticated organised crime syndicates have killed more than 800 African rhinos for their horns in the past three years. Credit: Anti-poaching Unit, Zimbabwe

malaysia poaching ivory

An ivory seizure last December in Malaysia. Credit: TRAFFIC.

Elephants by waterhole in Africa

More than 200 elephants were slaughtered in northern Cameroon last month. Credit: Anthony King

~ Anthony King

More than 200 elephants were slaughtered in northern Cameroon last month. The Guardian had reported that the elephant population of the local national park had been decimated by heavily armed poachers travelling in from neighbouring countries – Chad and Sudan.

The group Traffic, which monitors wildlife trading, warns that a surge in elephant poaching in Africa is driven by Asian demand for ivory in jewellery and ornaments. While much of the world is mired in recession, the wildlife trade is booming. Wildlife populations are being ground down – literally in some cases. And this isn’t local enterprise.

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) warns that sophisticated organised crime syndicates have killed more than 800 African rhinos in the past three years, for instance. South Africa alone lost 448 rhinos last year. Their horns mostly ended up in Southeast Asian markets, where they are believed to cure many diseases, including cancer. There’s no evidence to support that, but consumers in China and Vietnam are driving the demand for dead rhinos nonetheless.

Thankfully, there are some trained, committed defenders of wildlife on the front lines in Africa. Damien Mander is one: a former Australian Special Forces sniper who trains game rangers in Zimbabwe, this month’s National Geographic describes him as “hard-muscled” with “an imposing menagerie of tattoos”, and describes the lengths poachers will go to kill rhino.

The billion-dollar trade in endangered animals is far wider than ivory and rhino horn. A little over a week ago, wildlife authorities arrested two men and seized 18 live pangolins, or scaly anteaters, from a vehicle near a protected area in Malaysia. But no matter where offenders are caught, the authorities must prove that the species in the bag or jar is protected by legislation. Easy enough when the animals are found in their entirety, but what if they are unidentifiable animal parts such as scales, feathers or gall bladders or even eggs? DNA offers a solution.

Adrian Linacre, forensic scientist at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, began working in human forensics in Scotland – identifying human remains – when at the University of Strathclyde. Appointed as South Australia Justice Chair in Forensic Science, he recently devised a DNA test for pangolin with colleagues in Taiwan. He is now devising a DNA test for carpet python, a highly traded snake in South Australia. Scientists like Linacre, vital in the battle against wildlife crime, are often attached to universities or museums, because this is traditionally where animals would be sent for identification.

But it’s a sure sign that governments don’t think too seriously about wildlife crime that there are not organised units of wildlife crime labs. Arrangements are usually fairly ad-hoc, with “some forensics guy” in a university being asked to help out on a case and getting involved part-time. On the other side of the divide are gangs of professional criminals, attracted by lucrative financial rewards and light sanctions if caught.

Illegal wildlife trade is a global phenomenon. You make plenty of money taking Australian fauna out of the country, Rebecca Johnson at the Australian Museum in Sydney tells me. “We’ve had cases of people taking out red-tailed cockatoos,” she says. “We’ve had big reptile hauls too. Australian and New Zealand reptiles are really popular in overseas markets.” People have been found smuggling eggs out in special jackets.

The illegal wildlife industry relies on poachers, middlemen and crime syndicates to kill or trap and prepare and distribute endangered wildlife, but consumers are essential to drive demand. Becoming involved in species extinction is easier than you think.

Holidaymakers should consider the source of quirky or novel items at market stalls. Ask yourself where that animal or plant product may have come from. Are you encouraging the hunting of an endangered animal through your purchase?


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