Category Archives: Wildlife Forensics

An Iconic Species at Risk, Part II

Tiger photo via camera trap (courtesty of National Geographic)

On December 2 I posted about tiger poaching and Wildlife Conservation Society’s efforts to combat this alarming trade. National Geographic Magazine’s December issue has an amazing article about tigers and their fragile status on this planet.

You can read the article here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/tigers/alexander-text

Some of the highlights of the article:

  • The tiger population is estimated at around 4,000 animals, scattered throughout Asia’s 13 “tiger countries”, although many experts believe that their numbers are actually far lower.
  • Some reserves, established to protect tigers, have seen a complete loss of all of their tigers; one 300 mile preserve in India lost every single one of its tigers to professional gangs.
  • Relocation efforts have proven somewhat unsuccessful, as tigers typically range over a hundred miles, and nearly a third of India’s tigers live outside tiger reserves.
  • Conservation efforts have largely failed the species, with millions of donated dollars and “vociferously expressed concern for tigers” achieving only “the demise of half the already imperiled population” since the 1980’s.
  • There have been successful attempts to bring back the population: take Huai Kha Khaeng, a 1,073-square-mile wildlife sanctuary (wrote about this place in my December 2nd article) where 2 decades ago there were only 20 tigers and now there are “an estimated 60 in the sanctuary alone and roughly 100 in the rest of the Western Forest Complex, which has six times the area”; the success is due to improved forest health and rise in prey, dedicated monitoring by well-equipped and well-trained patrols, and extreme pride and desire to protect a national treasure.
  •  Tigers are resilient by nature: they “are not finicky about diet or habitat, or dependent on a particular ecosystem; they have been found in Bhutan above 13,000 feet, an altitude overlapping the domain of the snow leopard, and in the saltwater mangrove swamps of Bangladesh where they have learned to swim and supplement their diets with marine life; they reproduce well if given the chance; an average female can rear some six to eight cubs over her 10-12 year lifespan”.

I hope that you will read the entire article – it’s worth your time and the photos are beautiful.

Courtesy of National Geographic

Another hopeful conservation effort is being started by INTERPOL, the international and intergovernmental criminal investigative organization, which has an environmental crimes division. Called Project Predator, it “unites the efforts of police, customs and wildlife officials in the 13 countries in Asia where wild tigers can still be found” and involves “the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institution and INTERPOL”.

There is an article on the project here: http://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-media/News-media-releases/2011/PR092, although it is somewhat vague about how the project will work.

Efforts to save tigers are underway. Are we too late? That remains to be seen. As field biologist George B. Schaller puts it, “The great cats represent the ultimate test of our willingness to share this planet with other species; we must act now to offer them a bright and secure future, if for no other reason than they are among the most wonderful expressions of life on Earth”.

 

An Iconic Species at Risk, Part I

(Photo courtesy of detlaphiltdic.blogspot.com)

Did you know that there are fewer than 3500 tigers remaining in the world? In 1900 there were 100,000 tigers across Asia. Many factors have contributed to their decimation, like increasing human/animal conflict and habitat loss, but most recently poaching is the main reason for their frighteningly scarce numbers. Can you imagine a world without them? Or without some of the other amazing creatures that share their home in Asia, like elephants? I would suggest you try to wrap your mind around that possibility, because it is a very real one. But there are efforts underway to stop the loss of tigers and other species, some that involve forensic science at its best.

A fantastic video about tiger poaching can be watched here: Hunt for the Tiger Slayers

If you don’t want to watch it (although I strongly suggest you do; it’s relatively short and very informative) I’ve summarized it below.

In 2010, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found themselves face to face with tiger poachers while they were setting up camera traps in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. The poachers fled, but left behind them horrible destruction in the form of a tigress and her cubs, poisoned.   According to WCS, tigers are “poached for their skin, bone, teeth, and claws, and the slaughter of even one or two breeding females could have a terrible impact on the population; the poaching gangs can be so ruthless that they often kill elephants for their tusks, and then poison and leave behind the carcass for tigers to feed on”. Two very lucrative birds with one stone.

In this case, a composite sketch was developed by the Thai police. Anti-poaching efforts were increased in the form of 40 new rangers trained to combat the illegal wildlife trade. That summer there were several armed conflicts between the rangers and the poachers, eventually leading to the capture of the same poachers believed responsible for the deaths of the tigress and her cubs. Evidence in the form of photos found on the poachers’ confiscated cell phones shows them proudly displaying the tigers they had killed.

One of the cell phone images that convicted the poachers (photo courtesy of here-we-roar.org)

The poachers argued that the tigers in the photos were from unprotected areas, and thus could not be used to prosecute them. But when one of their cell phone pictures was compared to a photo of a tiger captured by WCS’s camera traps that had later been found dead, a match was confirmed.

“Tiger stripes are like fingerprints, and researchers used them to confirm a positive ID; charged with the deaths of four tigers, the two poachers face a lengthy time away, but unfortunately the demand remains,” (WCS, 2011).

While doing research for this post I also came across a great article on this issue; you can read it here:  http://missinterpreting.com/2011/10/17/smooth-criminals-the-sophisticated-tiger-trade/

In the article the writer lists several disheartening facts put forth by Mark Carwardine – a BBC Presenter, Zoologist, Conservationist, Wildlife Photographer and Writer:

  • Two tiger subspecies, the Bali and Javan tiger, are already extinct with a third subspecies – the Caspian tiger – yet to be confirmed. It has been claimed that the South China tiger may become extinct within the next decade.
  • The tiger population is dwindling because of hunting by poachers, being killed for clashing with human dwellers and forest workers and by having their habitats destroyed. 93% of the tiger’s habitat has disappeared in the last century.
  • Four tigers are killed every week and China is responsible for the most tiger poaching activity. Their trust in the medicinal effects of tiger teeth, skin and bones is based on ancient beliefs which are not backed up by scientific evidence. The Chinese also cash in on the billions of blood money yielded by the tiger trade to sell tiger body parts as food, clothes or souvenirs.
  • Tiger conservation is extremely complex because of the intricacies of the tiger trade and the lack of effective support from politicians and police forces. (Monica Sarkar, 2011)

If these facts don’t upset you, if the video above doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, if the thought of such iconic creatures as tigers disappearing forever doesn’t motivate you to some sort of action, then you are lucky. These issues keep me up at night. They keep me from blissful ignorance and a good night’s sleep. They make my head spin with thoughts on how to stop the destruction. I suggest you watch the video again (I’m even posting the link here so that you don’t have to scroll up: Hunt for the Tiger Slayers ) and let it sink in.

The tiger whose stripes matched those of the tiger in the poachers' cell phone pics (courtesy of http://www.wcs.org)

This is what I’m passionate about and what I hope to inspire others to be interested in as well. We can stop this, if we act now.

More on tigers and poaching to come…

 

The Many Faces of Criminology

If you’re like me, and many of you at least share some of my interests since you’re reading this thing, you love to learn. I’m obsessed with learning everything. It’s just a part of my personality. If I go hiking in the mountains and find a flower I’ve never seen before, I want to know what it is. I’ll scour books and the internet until I find it and then I’ll read everything I can about it.

Most of the time this is fun and I enjoy this about myself. Other times it’s frustrating. Why can’t I just take a walk and enjoy my surroundings without having to know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING, and being annoyed that I know so little?? And just because I read all this information doesn’t mean I retain it. *SIGH*

In any case, I did a random internet search the other day on the topic of criminology, or the study of crime. I respect the fields of criminal justice and criminology, but don’t have a burning desire to study them individually except in terms of forensics. I felt this was a bit unfair, so I wanted to see what I may be missing. Little did I know how broad a topic criminology is. Even though I’ve taken so many courses that involved “criminology” on some level or another I wasn’t aware that there were so many different branches and types. Everyone knows the big ones like white/blue collar crime and organized crime, but there’s also corporate crime, political crime, public order crime, state-corporate crime (get a glimpse of them all on Wikipedia)… pick a word and put “crime” behind it and you’ve got a new -0logy. Then there’s all the various “schools” of criminal theory, and their histories… it’s enough to make my head hurt. But the one that interested me the most was environmental criminology.

When you hear the term “environment”, if you’re like me again, you’re thinking THE environment, earth, Mother Nature, etc. I was excited! But environmental criminology can refer to many things; the whys and hows of crimes that are committed in certain areas, like urban vs. rural, or it can involve crime mapping or “spatial distributions of targets and offenders in a variety of settings and the way in which the location of a crime interacts with other dimensions to produce a criminal event” (NCJRS). The science even has its own Facebook page, which states that it “focuses on criminal patterns within particular built environments and analyzes the impacts of these external variables on people’s cognitive behavior. It forms a part of the Positivist School in that it applies the scientific method to examine the society that causes crime.” Hmmm…. or zzzzzzzzzzzzz…? Interesting, but only to a point. If this is exciting for you, please pardon my yawn.

But turns out there is something referred to as Conservation Criminology, which is getting more attention of late and goes hand in hand with wildlife forensics. Michigan State University is even offering a certificate program in this field, and their page states: “Conservation criminology, the interdisciplinary study of environmental crimes and/or risks, is a newly emerging area of scholarship conducted in collaboration with faculty, students and researchers from MSU and across the globe.  Conservation criminology synergizes the fields of criminology and criminal justice, conservation and natural resource management, decision-analysis and forensic science to examine environmental crimes, harms and/or risks.” That’s more like it! I’m not so much interested in the study of crime for crime’s sake. But I am interested in it when it relates to what I automatically think of as the environment or nature or wildlife. Their page goes on to say: “The program is designed to promote the deconstruction of key environmental risks using multiple scales (e.g., individual, corporate, international) and to use a diverse set of disciplinary theories, methods and tools to explore and explain environmental risks, including regulation, enforcement and broader strategies to achieve compliance (e.g., education, risk communication, etc).” Very cool.

Years ago I worked in the field doing wetland delineations and Phase I site assessments, which involved evaluating parcels of land for environmental concerns, hazards and contaminants. I didn’t realize it then, but I guess I was involved in a type of conservation crime evaluation with those land investigations. Hmmm. Curious how life can come full circle.

It’s crazy how one science can have so many branches, and also how something that on the surface may appear boring, may in fact relate to something you’re deeply interested in if you dig deep enough! I have more research to do…

Uphill Battle to Combat Poaching

Photo by Elizabeth Bennett

The article below was published on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s website. You can see it here: http://www.wcs.org/news-and-features-main/wanted-tougher-enforcement-of-wildlife-crime.aspx

I quoted it directly because I felt that trying to summarize it would be pointless.

“Poachers killed almost 230 rhinoceroses in South Africa between January and October of last year. Over the past decade, they’ve killed countless tigers, too, for trading rings that deal in wildlife skins and body parts. Today, fewer than 3,500 of these big cats remain in the wild.

These are just two of many examples WCS  (Wildlife Conservation Society) conservationist Elizabeth Bennett highlights in a recent paper. In the journal Oryx, Bennett addresses how organized crime has become more sophisticated in smuggling wildlife and wildlife products and adept at eluding authorities.

Previously secure wildlife populations are now under threat as poachers and smugglers step up their game. Some new tactics include using hidden compartments in shipping containers, rapidly changing trading routes, and switching to e-commerce, which makes their operating locations difficult to detect.

As advanced smuggling strategies hasten local extinctions of wildlife species, better law enforcement is needed immediately. Bennett suggests various strategies to counter organized wildlife crime activities. These include increasing numbers of highly trained and well-equipped enforcement staff at all points along the trade chain, using more sniffer dogs, conducting DNA tests to search for wildlife products, and employing smart-phone apps with species identification programs.” (Wildlife Conservation Society)

To read about some of the global programs that exist to combat poaching, follow this link:

http://www.wcs.org/conservation-challenges/natural-resource-use/hunting-and-wildlife-trade.aspx

There are also current news stories on the same page. Happy reading, and lets keep up the fight.

Philadelphia’s Ivory Bust

All of this is ivory. (Photo from The New York Times)

I know I’m running the risk of turning this into a ‘Save the Elephants’ blog (see my last post, and the one from April), but I felt I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the ENORMOUS confiscation of ivory merchandise, or actually  “one of the largest U.S. seizures of illegally imported African elephant ivory,” (Wall Street Journal) that occurred in Philadelphia yesterday.

A store owner was arrested for selling ivory that he obtained by paying someone to travel to Africa, procure the ivory, and have local artisans there carve it. “Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention, so most of the nearly 500 carvings seized from Gordon and his customers were treated to resemble century-old antiques, which are legal for sale,” (Philly.com) Unfortunately, however, this ivory was not old – it was taken from elephants recently killed, namely forest elephants. “Smuggling is considered a significant factor in the decline of the forest elephants, whose ivory is denser and more valued than the tusks from the more numerous savanna elephants in East Africa,” (Philly.com).

Here is an excerpt in one article about this incident that I found particularly important:

“A Fish and Wildlife Service expert on elephant conservation, just back from Africa, said the rows of illegally imported ivory carvings left him traumatized. The number of forest elephants killed for their tusks has jumped in recent years, much of it driven by demand from a newly affluent Asian market, said the expert, Richard Ruggerio, who runs the agency’s conservation programs in Africa. ‘We’re seeing the last battle for the survival of the forest elephant,’ he said. Ruggerio said the herds have been broken up not just by the killing of individual elephants, but also by the damage done to the group structure when a lead elephant has been eliminated. ‘They act like displaced persons from a war,’ he said. James Deutsch, who runs the African conservation program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said forest elephants in Central Africa ‘could go extinct in 10 to 20 years. This is why this seizure is important,’ he said. Deutsch estimated there were about 100,000 forest elephants left in central Africa. Herds are already gone from a large part of their original range. Forest elephants can live to more than 50 years. Recent genetic studies show that the smaller forest elephants are distant cousins of the savanna elephant. The split is estimated to have occurred from two million to seven million years ago,” (Philly.com)

It sickens me to think of how many times I stood outside that store, admiring the African wares inside. I used to live right around the corner. I would walk my dog past there every day and stare in at the African masks on the walls and the clothing and other goods in the window, thinking about my own travels to that continent and how much I loved it. I don’t know if some of the trinkets I ogled in the store were ivory or not. I hope for my conscience’s sake they were not. But at least this counts as one more victory in the war on wildlife. Let’s keep fighting.

Intricately carved tusks that were seized (Photo from http://www.metro.us)

Some Small Successes for a JUMBO Problem

Those who know me are familiar with my elephant obsession. For those who don’t, if you stick around here long enough you will realize that I am passionate about elephants to the point of losing sleep over their many plights. Recently there have been a number of stories written about the ongoing elephant poaching crises and the unrelenting desire for ivory. I wrote a post on this topic myself not too long ago. Vanity Fair has just published an article for their August issue titled Agony and Ivory  – please click the link below to watch a short video that describes the research behind the story (the footage is amazing):

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/08/elephants-video

The comment that scares me the most: “If 35,000 elephants are being killed a year and there’s only 500,000 left, then they would all be gone in less than 20 years unless we do something fast about this.” (Alex Shoumatoff)

This is why I lose sleep.

You can read the full Vanity Fair article here:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/08/elephants-201108

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes the African elephant population as “vulnerable”; their numbers are thought to be generally increasing, with the most steady positive numbers being reported in Eastern and Southern Africa. However, this is only good news if the poaching ceases; if it continues, their wobbly population status will fall to the opposite side, and quickly. A female elephant will produce a calf approximately once every five years – they have the longest gestation period of any mammal at 22 months. Population growth in elephants happens extremely slowly.

The Asian elephant population status is much worse. They are classified as “endangered”and their numbers are sickeningly low: 41,410–52,345 worldwide and the population trend is decreasing, mostly due to habitat loss (IUCN) although they do face poaching dangers like their African counterparts.

But there is some good news trickling out of elephant-populated countries. In Namibia (where I spent time in 2008), four poachers were caught in the Caprivi region smuggling tusks across the border from Botswana: “A public tip-off to the wildlife authorities first stated that the men were hunting buffalo and hippo in the area; Colgar Sikopo, Deputy Director of Wildlife Management in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, said an investigation started immediately after they received the alert from the Caprivi Bamunu conservancy that people from the area were involved in illegal hunting,” (http://www.namibian.com.na/news/full-story/archive/2011/july/article/elephant-poachers-caught/). And Kenya is set to destroy some of its stockpiled ivory: “Kenya will next week burn nearly five tonnes of ivory poached in eastern and southern Africa and stockpiled for nearly a decade; the 4.967 tonnes (10,950 pounds) of elephant tusks were seized in Singapore in 2002, and stored since then at a wildlife rangers training centre in eastern Kenya (the tusks originated in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia),” (http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/07/18/stash-of-ivory-set-to-be-burned/45770/).

I’m choosing to focus on the positives, while remaining vigilant about the negative reality. There are many good things happening in this battle; for instance the recent implementation of DNA technology has given authorities a competitive advantage because it enables them to track the origination of tusks in an effort to study poaching trends. I can only hope that more people will realize how valuable these species are. I am unable to visualize a world without them. But elephants are not the only ones we stand to lose. Take some time to poke around the IUCN’s Red List. It’s frightening just how many animals and plants are dangerously close to disappearing forever. That’s FOREVER, folks. I am hoping to make another trek across the Atlantic to study more wildlife in the very near future… I want to see as much of it as I can, exactly where it’s supposed to be, just in case we can’t preserve it in time.

Here is a slideshow of some photos from my time in Namibia. Enjoy.

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Getting Back Out There – The Post A Week Challenge

I know I haven’t posted in quite some time and for that I apologize. Back at the beginning of April I was on a roll, posting almost every day. I really enjoyed it. Then a comment was made that really bothered me, about the fact that it was obvious that I didn’t have much going on in my life since I was able to write so much. For those of you who missed it, I was laid off in January. You can read about it here. I thought I was handling it all with grace, if I do say so myself, until about two months ago, and then the reality of it all hit me like a ton of bricks. When you’ve built your life around being a professional and having a career, however frustrating that career may be, and then it gets yanked away from you, suddenly it feels as if the bottom fell out. And when that comment was made I didn’t realize that it would bother me so much, but it was like pouring salt into an open wound.

So I stopped writing. Not just because of what was said, but because I let it get under my skin. It made me think too much, and the negative thoughts just kept piling on top of each other in my mind. But truth be told, I DID have a lot going on. I was completing my master’s degree. I was continuing my job search (which finally paid off – I start a new job, IN THE FORENSICS FIELD, in less than two weeks!!!), and I was taking on odd jobs in the meantime. But in my day to day sadness none of that mattered. I felt like a failure. Maybe some of you out there know what I’m talking about or are going through it yourselves right now. It sucks, doesn’t it? Even with the massive amount of people dealing with this issue, it’s a VERY lonely place to be.

Things are slowly turning around. I graduate soon. I will be starting a new job. I have other exciting things coming up. I’m beginning to pull myself up by the bootstraps, but it ain’t easy. Like one of my good friends told me, it’s hard to get out of a funk. I have good and bad days. But I can’t let it keep me from the things I care about, like writing about the issues that matter to me. So I’ve decided I want to get back to it! Rather than just thinking about doing it, I’m starting right now. I will be posting on this blog once a week for the rest of 2011. More if I can manage. It’s a challenge, but I’m up for it. The topics that I write about need exposure. The more awareness I can spread, the more excitement I can generate, the more of a difference we can all make. I hope you will continue to follow along with me, and feel free to write or make comments. I see great things coming in the future – not just for me but for forensics and the amazing things this science can achieve.

Stay tuned – it will be a fun ride. I will also be publishing guest posts by others in the near future; a fantastic aspect of this that I didn’t anticipate! And for anyone else in the same boat that I am, stay focused, stay strong, believe in yourself, and try to ignore the negative (especially when it comes from yourself).

Huge Illegal Shipment of Elephant Tusks Seized in Thailand

Follow this link to read the article:

Illegal Ivory Seized, April 2011

In 2008, I volunteered with Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) in Namibia, West Africa. We built “elephant-proof” wells for villagers

In front of the well in-progress

and tracked and monitored the local desert elephant herds in the area. On one of our excursions to find a particular herd, we stumbled upon an elephant carcass.

All that remained

Bones bleached by sun and sand

One of the first things I noticed was the lack of tusks. They were nowhere to be found. One of our local guides told us that the elephant had most likely died of old age, and that officials from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism had taken the tusks for safekeeping, so that they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Although poaching is not a huge problem in that area, in 2007, the African governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were granted permission to pursue a one-off sale of their stock-piled ivory, 18 years after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the ivory trade. The money would be used by the countries in various ways, including funding for conservation efforts. However, opposers felt that this would only increase the rates of illegal poaching, and some countries, including Kenya, condemned the sales. One year later, standing over the remains of one of Namibia’s greatest tourism assets, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what had happened to that elephant, and where the tusks had gone. What had her life been like? Where was her family? Had they mourned her passing? Had she died a “natural” death, or did she fall victim to poachers?

It sickens me to think that in 2011 there are still those who value a carved ivory statue over the life that provided it. That there are individuals willing to spend thousands of dollars (and in some cases, much more) for a dust-collector that they can display in their homes, with no regard for the animal whose life was taken so that the person could have it. But I am heartened by increased investigatory efforts, and by each and every confiscation of illegal ivory and subsequent prosecution of the people responsible. Each one is a victory in the war on wildlife. My hope is that it will continue… each one sends a message: we will not tolerate this senseless killing and lack of respect for wildlife.