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Forensic Science

Murder Most Beastly
Inside the world's only animal crime lab

A moose carcass, an eagle wing, a jar of caviar, the gallbladder of a black bear. It almost sounds like a recipe for some diabolical witches' brew. Actually it's murder evidence, carefully bagged and tagged, and it's all stored in the walk-in freezer at the National Fish and Wildlife Agency's forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon, the only lab of its kind in the world. Without the lab's help, the statutes that protect endangered or threatened animals worldwide would have, well, no teeth.
"We're fortunate in the U.S. to have a crime lab dedicated to animals," says Edgard Espinoza, deputy director of the lab and its chief forensic scientist. "Most countries can't afford this type of facility."
The lab never lacks for work. "The illegal wildlife trade is probably second only to the drug trade," says Fish and Wildlife agent Tim Santel. In a typical year the lab's 23 scientists analyze more than 5,500 items—from animal carcasses to boots made of crocodile leather.
A pioneer in the science of wildlife forensics, the animal lab often uses DNA analysis in its work. Among other innovations, its genetics team has developed a technique to identify the DNA of 14 species of sturgeon and paddlefish whose eggs are packaged as caviar. With backup from the lab, agents run sting operations to catch traffickers in illegally harvested or fraudulently marketed fish eggs. In one case perpetrators were hit with a 10.4-million-dollar fine, the largest fine ever imposed in a wildlife crime case.
The lab also used DNA to help make a case against a butcher shop in Illinois accused of selling tiger meat. The meat was labeled as lion, which is legal to sell in the U.S. (tigers are endangered, lions are not), but DNA tests revealed that it was tiger.

Over the past decade there's been a boom in the import of exotic animal parts that immigrant communities in the U.S. traditionally use in ceremonies or for medicinal purposes. African bush meat such as monkey, eaten during rituals, fetches high prices on the black market. To help identify meat from primates—animals known to carry HIV
and other deadly microbes—lab technicians collected DNA samples from the paws of monkeys and apes that lived and died in zoos. The resulting DNA catalog provides a ready reference to help solve future cases.
Black bears have fallen prey to hunters hoping to cash in on the market for bear gallbladders, which are prized in Asia for treating a host of ills, from liver disease to hemorrhoids. Hunters typically remove only the gallbladder and leave the rest of the bear—ample evidence for the lab to link a culprit to the crime.
Often agents get a tip from informants that, for instance, a hunter has made an illegal kill in a national park. The agents locate the kill and any shell casings left behind, then ship any remains containing bullets to the lab, where ballistics analysis can lead to the killer.
Agents working undercover to snare offenders can find themselves in dicey situations, particularly with cash stakes so high. One agent posing as a hauler of lions and tigers had to watch as his contacts shot the big cats: Unarmed himself, he could have been their next victim. But he managed to get evidence critical to breaking up the criminal ring. "We realize there are dangers in what we do," says agent Santel. "But because of the passion we have for our work, we don't think about it, we just do it."
—David Diamond

Web Links

National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory
Find out how the laboratory gathers clues to catch international criminals involved with trafficking animal parts.

Read the latest news about the illegal wildlife trade from the World Wildlife Fund arm that monitors the worldwide sale of animals, alive or dead.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement
Learn more about the many kinds of criminals pursued by agents of this U.S. Fish and Wildlife branch, which celebrated its centennial in 2000.

Free World Map

Govind, Vadivu, and Sandra Ho. The Trade in Bear Gall Bladder and Bear Bile Products, Singapore. Animal Concerns Research and Education Society, 2001.
Seabrook, Charles. "Illegal animal trade reaps billions yearly." Atlanta-Journal Constitution, December 21, 2003.


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