When Ken Goddard joined the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1979, he never dreamed that one day he would be wading through an ice-cold Alaskan river with a walrus skin wrapped around his legs. Yet there he was in 1990, investigating a rash of decapitated walrus carcasses that had washed up along the shoreline of Alaska’s Kotzebue Sound. Using walrus skin to protect against the water’s frigid temperature was only one of many extreme measures Goddard undertook while investigating the hundreds of miles the crime scene spanned. Local Inuit hunters told investigators that before washing ashore and being beheaded, the walruses had been killed by gunfire from Russian planes. Other authorities believed the Inuit hunters had illegally “headhunted” the walruses for their ivory tusks. It was up to Goddard and partner Ed Espinoza to solve the case.
A wildlife detective by trade, Goddard is the director of the Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory (FWFL) in Ashland, Oregon. The lab bills itself as the only full-service forensics lab in the world dedicated to solving crimes committed against animals. In Ashland, a team of wildlife forensic scientists analyze evidence from animal crime scenes much in the same way human forensic scientists do—using techniques like fingerprint testing and DNA analysis.
Back in Alaska, Goddard and Espinoza (the FWFL’s chief scientist and deputy director) used lab-sharpened skills to solve the walrus case. The team let the animal bones dry in the sun so they could analyze bleaching patterns. If the walrus’s heads were cut off only after their dead bodies floated ashore, all the bones would bleach the same. What Goddard and Espinoza found was an inner skeleton that bleached one color and neck bones that bleached another, indicating that the neck bones had been exposed to salt water. Each walrus had been beheaded before the rest of the carcass was thrown into the ocean to wash back up on the beach. The conclusion: The Inuits had illegally killed the walruses to harvest their ivory—an extremely profitable, and extremely illegal, black market commodity.
By some estimates, the illegal wildlife trade exceeds profits of $20 billion a year and affects more than 100,000 animals worldwide. In South America, an increasing demand for the bright, multicolored feathers of scarlet macaws has left their populations decimated. In Asia, male tigers face extinction because of the widespread belief that consuming tiger penis increases sexual prowess and treats erectile dysfunction. In the Virunga Mountains of East Africa, mountain gorillas are illegally hunted for their heads, hands, and meat; fewer than 800 remain on Earth.
An ever-shrinking global market and advances in technology have allowed wildlife trafficking to evolve into a highly sophisticated network that moves products faster and more discreetly than ever before. Connecting with buyers through Internet sites such as eBay, which banned the sale of ivory in 2009, traffickers can ship items directly to the buyer and bypass international customs inspections altogether.
When wildlife products are seized at a border inspection, they have often already been processed into commodities like hand-carved idols or wristwatch bands, making it difficult to know what kind of animal the product originally came from. In rare instances when an inspector does discover an entire animal, it is nearly impossible to know where the animal came from because the crime scene, such as a seaport, may be its second or third stop. The elusive nature of wildlife trafficking has allowed it to penetrate even the most regulated countries and become, after drugs and guns, the third largest illegal trade system in the world.
From the ground up
Before the USFWS hired Goddard in 1979, there were no formal procedures for wildlife criminal cases. Instead, state wildlife officials relied upon small local resources for evidence processing, with few people outside of academia able to analyze what they found. Even fewer could testify in court about wildlife cases; most research centers and museums capable of processing such a case lacked the formal procedure for handling evidence that can stand up in court. But as luck would have it, at the same time the USFWS began looking for someone to develop wildlife crime scene investigation (CSI) procedures, Goddard began looking for a change of professional scenery.
Having spent 11 years as a deputy sheriff and criminalist investigating human crime scenes in California, Goddard had already seen more than his fair share of carnage. In 1978, he was ready to start a new chapter in his life and happened to stumble upon the USFWS’s classified advertisement for a forensic scientist. Initially, Goddard was skeptical he had the right skill set. “I don’t know anything about wildlife. We only have seagulls around here,” he recalls thinking when he saw the ad in the law enforcement trade magazine, The Police Chief. After some contemplation, he applied for the position and, despite his initial doubts, got the job. Goddard spent the next year writing the country’s first animal forensics CSI manuals. Once finished, he was given a badge, a gun, and a CSI kit and began traveling all over the US to visit crime scenes. This time, however, the victims weren’t human.
Those early wildlife investigations raised more questions than could be answered during a routine field inquiry. Where was the animal killed? Was its death during a regular hunting season? Was it a protected species? The answers to Goddard’s questions required in-depth scientific research. Although Goddard could send his samples to US forensics labs, their main focus was solving human cases. “It was like, ‘Your case will always be lowest priority. It’ll never get worked,’” Goddard says. “We needed our own lab. Absolutely.”
He and others within the USFWS began garnering support from the US government to build a facility. Tireless lobbying, countless petitions for funding, and a bit of serendipity helped Goddard’s vision come to fruition. In 1987, workers broke ground in Ashland for the world’s first and only animal forensics research laboratory.
When the lab opened in 1989, Goddard had just ten employees and a limited arsenal of crime-solving technology. Two decades later, he oversees a team of 32 CSI investigators who manage 800 to 900 cases each year. From those cases, the FWFL processes 12,000 to 15,000 pieces of evidence that can be anything from an unidentified powder in a rawhide pouch to a hand-etched primate skull.
Since its start, the FWFL has worked on dozens of high-profile cases. In 2008 at an airport in Zambia, Interpol discovered four padlocked black metal trunks filled with African elephant ivory tusks. An officer followed the shipment to Singapore where he seized the trunks after deciding local law enforcement was too corrupt to cooperate with his investigation. The cases were sent to the FWFL for criminal analysis and when opened, it was discovered that the ivory inside was worth an estimated $100,000 to $200,000.
“The contents of the four metal boxes were 78 tusks of all different sizes, giving us the sense that it was a family of elephants from some young ones to at least one or two very large females, if not a bull,” Goddard says.
Going into the investigation the team knew the trunks contained tusks, but Goddard says they had no idea what else they might find. He is grateful the trunks stayed sealed until they reached the lab.
“Opening the boxes could have essentially ruined what we think of as a lovely crime scene—a sealed box where we can find all kinds of interesting things like pollen, insect parts, plant parts, soil, dirt, and mineral trace evidence that can tell us where those tusks came from,” says Goddard, who indeed did find pollen and a small red spider in the trunks. Both were significant discoveries that helped investigators pinpoint a narrow strip of land in central Africa as the former home of the elephants. Goddard declined to name the area given the case’s political sensitivity.
Although a seizure of this size may seem like a victory for the good guys, Goddard admits an ominous feeling always lingers around the laboratory’s work. Just as fast as they can develop identification and evidence procedures, traffickers devise new ways to process and smuggle wildlife.
Piecing it together
At the FWFL it’s up to each lab division to determine the who, what, where, when, and how of a case. To do this, scientists in the lab’s five forensic divisions—morphology, pathology, genetics, chemistry, and criminalistics—analyze data to link the suspect, victim, and crime scene.
“It can be easy to link the victim and the crime scene together if the victim is found at or near the crime scene,” Goddard says. “If forensic scientists can use physical evidence to scientifically link the suspect to either the victim or the crime scene, then we’ve made the full connection.”
But connecting the dots isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Many times wildlife evidence comes to the lab processed beyond recognition, which makes it difficult to know what species the victim was. When this happens, FWFL scientists in the morphology department use visual characteristics such as fur, teeth, claws, bones, hair, skulls, and shells to identify the species of an animal.
“The evidence items we get are those that still retain a part of the original form of the animal,” says Bonnie Yates, senior forensic scientist and mammal unit coordinator. To aid Yates and the other morphologists, the department maintains a “comparative collection,” made up of over 100,000 animal specimens.
“It’s our reference material. It’s like a database except it’s made up of three-dimensional objects,” Yates says. The comparative samples can be anything from a single bear paw to a reconstructed lizard skeleton. An array of man-made wildlife goods such as alligator purses and turtle shell combs are also housed in the collection so scientists can compare genuinely illegal animal goods against their fake “knock-off” counterparts. Sometimes, however, the fake isn’t a fashion accessory—it’s an actual species.
Years ago, Yates explains, wildlife researchers were scouting Vietnamese street markets for unusual animals when they came across a mouse deer, a small brown rodent with four long deer-like legs. The researchers decided to send it to the FWFL for analysis. When Yates received the animal she discovered this wasn’t just any mouse deer. This one had two half-inch-long horns.
“I thought ‘Wait a minute, mouse deer don’t have horns,’” she says. “We x-rayed it and sure enough, you could see the little plug and if you looked very closely you could see the glue around the hole.” The hoax, Yates says, illustrates the struggle some nations face in moving from a subsistence economy to a cash economy. “The only resources they have to turn in to cash are the items in their own backyards,” she says. Not only would the novelty of a mouse with horns be worth more at market, but the discovery of a new species has the potential to draw thousands of dollars from researchers—enough money to support an entire community.
While animals that end up at the lab as parts and pieces have undoubtedly fallen victim to foul play, cases involving whole animals aren’t as straightforward. The carcasses of small mammals, birds, and even deer, make their way to Rebecca Kagan’s stainless steel examination table in the pathology department. Kagan’s division plays a key role in determining how an animal ended up as evidence in a criminal case. “As in the human world, we’re trying to not only figure out how an animal died, but also the manner of its death. Was this a malicious act, or was it a natural death by disease, or an accident?” she says.
Kagan begins her inquiry with an x-ray machine to look for obvious signs of trauma like bone fractures. If there are no signs of fatal injury, she performs an animal autopsy called a necropsy. She uses techniques such as “bread loafing,” or thinly slicing an organ to look for tumors. Many times, Kagan says, animals are killed illegally, but not always.
“I have to work just as hard to prove a death isn’t a malicious act as much as I have to prove it is,” she says.
If an agent wants to know if an item is made out of rhinoceros horn, it only needs to be seen by one department. That set up allows the departments to work somewhat independently of one another, Kagan says. But for more complicated cases such as a poisoning, the collective knowledge of the FWFL’s forensics team is crucial. “It’s essential that we’re all here together,” she says.
If Kagan believes an animal’s death was intentional, sometimes she or other scientists need to examine a wound, such as a bullet hole, more closely to understand the full extent of the injury. When this happens, an animal’s remains are sent to lab technician Mike Bates, who oversees the lab’s flesh-eating dermestid beetle collection. Much like the fast-acting insects featured on television shows like Bones and the CSI series, the beetles clean flesh and tissue from bones without compromising the skeleton.
Before the beetles begin their job, Bates cuts away the carcass’s excess hair and tissue. “The bugs can eat the hair and skin, but it really just delays the process. The more you cut off, the faster the bugs work,” he says. Once cleaned, the bones are soaked in a purifying solution of water and ammonia before being further examined. Bates estimates that the FWFL is home to 300,000 to 400,000 beetles that can strip a carcass of its flesh in a matter of days.
Although much of the FWFL’s work focuses on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds, the lab receives evidence of all kinds—including that of bottom-dwelling marine animals. In 2009, US Virgin Island-based jewelry company GEM Manufacturing attempted to ship 16 boxes labeled “plastic craft work” to the US. Custom officials, doubtful of the authenticity of the “plastic craft work,” intercepted the shipment. They wanted to know: Were the black, branch-like specimens in the boxes really plastic?
FWFL chief scientist and deputy director Espinoza analyzed the evidence and found that, as suspected, the specimens were not plastic at all. In fact, the “craft work” was actually a rare, slow-growing species of coral highly sought after for its rich black luster and used for jewelry and sculptures around the globe.
“In this case we used a microscope to look at spines because all black coral have microscopic spines. Imagine spines from a rosebud, but much, much smaller,” Espinoza says. “We were able to conclude the only thing it could be was black coral.”
Espinoza’s analysis helped prosecutors secure a conviction against GEM that led to a total of $4.47 million in fines and forfeitures—the largest non-seafood wildlife trafficking financial penalty ever filed.
In addition to supporting international organizations such as Interpol and border protection agencies, the FWFL continues to branch out in hopes of building a global network of wildlife CSI teams. In 2008, Goddard began working with marine biologists and law enforcement officers from six different countries to develop CSI procedures for investigating coral reef crime scenes. A year later he traveled to Botswana to teach 45 wildlife rangers CSI field techniques to help halt the poaching of quickly disappearing elephant and rhinoceros populations. In spite of law enforcement’s efforts and a global ban on ivory sales, the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC reported an estimated 51,000 pounds of illegal ivory was seized in 2011, the highest recorded amount since the ban went into effect in 1989.
States within the US are also taking measures to prevent wildlife poaching. This year, New York enacted a law preventing the possession and sale of bear gallbladder, which can be sold for as much as $30,000. Oregon and California also passed bans on the sale, trade, and possession of shark fins that are sometimes sold at $600 per pound. Despite efforts such as these, however, high profit yields continue to draw wildlife traffickers to the trade.
“There is a sense that we are impacting illegal trade, certainly not resolving it, but definitely slowing it down,” Goddard says. “Time is always working against us.” But as long as crimes against wildlife continue, Goddard and his team at the FWFL will be working to solve them.