Tag Archives: investigation

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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The Real Heroes

Scallion, one of 25 animals rescued by PSPCA officers (photo by PSPCA)

April is Prevention of Cruelty to Animals month. In honor of this I’m posting a link to the TV show Inside Edition’s recent coverage of the Pennsylvania SPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement officers in action, and their discovery of a hoarder who kept animals trapped in abandoned cars in horrific conditions. It was only due to the diligence and hard work of these officers that many of the animals survived. Watch the video here:

PSPCA humane law enforcement officers save 25 animals

You can also read the article on PSPCA’s website: http://www.pspca.org/news?id=583 

Please note, these officers are paid solely by donations – they receive NO state or city funding! Without their work all of the animals in this case, and the thousands of cases like it in the course of a year, would never make it. Click here to donate.

Every month should be Prevention of Cruelty to Animals month. For humane law enforcement officers across the country, it is. My experiences with them over the last year, the lessons they’ve taught me, the knowledge they’ve shared with me, are why I consider them an inspiration. The nightmarish things they encounter day in and day out would force many people to turn away. Yet they get up every day to continue the fight. I encourage all of you to help in any way you can. Foster. Adopt. Donate. Volunteer. And remember the ones who speak for those who can’t. We Are Their Voice.

Thanks guys, for being heroes.

A Fragile and Declining Beauty

Phalaenopsis Moth Orchid

Few people think of orchids when they hear of wildlife poaching, but it is a real and all-too-common aspect of a frightening crime. I first stumbled upon this phenomenon years ago, when the movie Adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, was released. It was loosely based on the fantastic book by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, which depicts the real-life investigation and subsequent arrest of orchid smuggler John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve area of Florida. Orlean’s book went into a lot of detail about the orchid trade. Endangered species of orchids are protected under the 1973 established Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), as well as the Endangered Species Act in the US. As usual, when there are restrictions but still demands, a black market will flourish. People venture to the areas of earth where the endangered orchids struggle to maintain their populations, most often Asia, South America, Africa, and regions of the tropical US (Florida & Hawaii), rip them from their natural homes, and ship or transport them to buyers often willing to pay thousands of dollars. Not unlike the purveyors of ivory.

The endangered Ghost Orchid, subject of Orlean's book

An interesting article on orchid smuggling from 2010 can be found here: http://www.msmbb.org.my/apjmbb/html181/181ap.pdf

Commercial trade in orchids not considered in danger of disappearing is legal. So is the sale of nursery-propogated species. But as anyone who has fallen under the spell of these magical plants can tell you, sometimes you can’t help but want what you can’t have – the plants sold in Home Depot don’t have the same appeal as a rare, exotic species to an avid collector. Plus, nursery orchids can be expensive and take long periods of time to grow; smugglers often undercut the prices of legitimate growers.

No plant genus or species could hope to illustrate Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection better than orchids. Defying simple description, these fascinating flowers are beautiful, hideous, freakish, arresting, and mysterious. The Orchidaceae is an enormous family of approximately 730 genera and 25,000 species scattered throughout the globe. It is unknown how many species may have existed at one time but are now extinct, and there currently may well be close to 100,000 more hybrid varieties created by cross-breeding different species (Leroy-Terquem, et al, 9). They range in size from microscopic to enormous plants with flowers stretching to over one foot in diameter. There are some that resemble faces: old men with fu Manchu moustaches, shriveled elderly women, and young children with expressions caught in a permanent state of surprise. Others look like dark, cloaked vampires, fangs curled and poised to bite; there is even a genus aptly named Dracula, which looks remarkably like the frightening mythological persona, complete with that familiar sinister expression.  

Dracula gigas (photo by Mauro Rosim)

Animal-like creatures come to life in orchids, like lions with an orange mane of petals, or monkeys with arms outstretched, or bright swallowtail butterflies. There are orchids that resemble high-heeled shoes and fluffy hats. Some seem to be monsters frozen forever in a silent scream; others look like tiny spiders or creeping ladybugs. A few species are parasitic in nature but most are epiphytic, anchoring themselves to trees or rocks but obtaining their nutrients from other sources. There are orchids that possess smells reminiscent of lemonade, angel-food cake, and expensive French perfume, while there are others whose smells resemble a garbage heap or in the worst cases, rotting flesh. Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid?

Vanilla orchid (photo by orchidsflowers.net)

I’ve had a love affair with orchids for many years, and have had sporadic success with different varieties. But although I admire the rare and exotic, I do so from the pages of books or online. Or purchase from legitimate growers. I’ve often bought the sad-looking Home Depot orchids because I feel sorry for them and want to give them a better home, and guess what? They grew just fine. Please don’t support the exotic pet or plant trade. Leave them where they are supposed to be so that they don’t disappear forever.

Paphiopedilum from my own collection 🙂

The FBI Needs YOU!

Are you a puzzle enthusiast? Like anagrams or cryptograms? Think you’ve got what it takes to crack a code? If you’re like my grandmother you complete the NY Times crossword AND the cryptogram in an hour. In PEN. If you’re like me, you love puzzles but that same crossword will sit on your desk, filled with erased PENCIL marks, and stare at you for an entire week, taunting and mocking with empty blocks, until the following Sunday when the answers come out. No joke – it’s sitting here right now.

If you love puzzles like me, the FBI is looking for your help!

Last week I received an email from the FBI (I am subscribed and receive updates on a few of their cases; you can subscribe too at http://www.fbi.gov/ ) about an open case that they have been working on:

“On June 30, 1999, sheriff’s officers in St. Louis, Missouri discovered the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick. He had been murdered and dumped in a field. The only clues regarding the homicide were two encrypted notes found in the victim’s pants pockets. The more than 30 lines of coded material use a maddening variety of letters, numbers, dashes, and parentheses. McCormick was a high school dropout, but he was able to read and write and was said to be “street smart.” According to members of his family, McCormick had used such encrypted notes since he was a boy, but apparently no one in his family knows how to decipher the codes, and it’s unknown whether anyone besides McCormick could translate his secret language. Investigators believe the notes in McCormick’s pockets were written up to three days before his death.” (FBI.gov) See actual notes above and below.

Here is the link for the case with the actual notes and description:

FBI open case

On the FBI website page are methods that the FBI cryptanalysts (what a great name for a profession) use to crack codes. And there is a link to Part I of the story, as well as a link to a page where you can leave your comments or theories.

I’ve been playing with the notes but it all looks like alphabet soup to me. Without an alphabet. I obviously lack the skills of a cryptanalyst, but who knows, YOU may recognize this code or be able to solve it! And maybe all this practice means that I will attempt the next crossword in PEN.