Fingerprinting pangolin scales to fight wildlife crime
Applying traditional forensics to wildlife crimes could help tackle poaching and trafficking for some of the world’s most endangered species. Dr Nick Pamment, Jac Reed and Dr Paul Smith talk to John Worsey in the latest episode of Life Solved.
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Thinking like a criminal
Dr Nick Pamment’s interest in poachers began in his Highlands childhood, where he witnessed some of the circumstances that drive people to illegally poach wildlife. Today, it is often the underprivileged or vulnerable individuals that are driven to commit poaching and smuggling of endangered species as part of a multimillion-pound global trade.
With a background in Criminology, Nick was resolved to make a difference and founded the University’s leading Wildlife Crime module eight years ago.
We started teaching things like green criminology, the types of wildlife, crime, law, policing, wildlife crime policy investigation, and forensic evidence associated with wildlife crime.
Understanding the complex and overlapping disciplines needed in Wildlife Crime threat and response required a team of experts. That’s where Dr Paul Smith and Jac Reed added their expertise in forensics to establish a research group that continues to grow.
One of the most recent breakthroughs from the team has been in the development of a special ‘gel’, commonly seen in forensics fingerprinting practices. Collaborating with colleagues at Border Force, the National Wildlife Crime Unit and ZSL London Zoo, the team looked at how perpetrator fingerprints might be left on samples of trafficked material.
Pangolins are also known as Scaly Anteaters. Their ground-up scales are used in traditional medicines and their meat is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. This has encouraged cruel and damaging practices, which have left all 8 species endangered. The team tested their gel on a sample of pangolin scales:
That was the Eureka moment. The gel is not just picking up a fingerprint, it’s picking up the DNA. It’s picking up traces and pollens that might be on the scales as well.
Not only does this kind of data help prosecute offenders, but it can also help build up a picture of the networks and trade routes through which trafficking is being organised. Pollen can indicate the provenance of a poached item when cross-referenced with the natural habitats of those plants.
Beginning a journey
A pilot study has already shown promising results from the field. The gel technology is easy for rangers to use and crucially can allow evidence to be gathered quickly. Rangers are often in dangerous circumstances when intervening in high-value trafficking and need to get away from danger zones as soon as possible.
It’s hoped that with future funding, the database and infrastructure needed to implement this kind of crime-fighting on a global scale can be developed. But that’s all down to outward-looking collaborations and information-sharing between leaders across many disciplines.