Wildlife officials are taking a page from crime scene investigations in order to save the world’s most-trafficked animal. Experts say they will begin implementing the same forensic technique used to lift fingerprints at crime scenes in order to catch pangolin smugglers around the world.
Pangolins are the most-trafficked animal you’ve probably never heard of. Their meat is a delicacy in China and Vietnam, and their scales are made of keratin – the same substance as rhino horns and whale baleen – which is used in traditional Asian and African bush medicines. Despite an international ban on all trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), some 300 pangolins are poached per day. Asian populations alone have declined by about 80 percent in the last 20 years. Conservation efforts are difficult because of their elusive nature.
When a person leaves behind a fingerprint, they leave with it fatty and amino acids, sweat, and oil naturally produced by the skin. At a crime scene, investigators will use a fine powder dust that sticks to these deposits (yes, like every crime show you’ve ever seen) and “lift” them with a clear tape before transferring them to another surface. Once in the lab, chemicals are used that react with the amino acids, resulting in a colored fingerprint that is easily analyzed.
In a preliminary trial, researchers had five participants grip 10 scales collected from several species of pangolin. A gelatin lifter was then applied to the scale, removed, and scanned using a special system. A hundred fingermarks were collected from the front and back of the scales, 89 percent of which produced fingerprints from the lift. Because each fingerprint is unique to the person who leaves it behind, law enforcement agencies will potentially be able to identify people who have come into contact with the scales.
“What we have done is to create a quick, easy and usable method for wildlife crime investigation in the field to help protect these critically endangered mammals. It is another tool that we can use to combat the poaching and trafficking of wild animals,” said Dr Nicholas Pamment, who runs the Wildlife Crime Unit at the University of Portsmouth, in a statement.
Researchers say this is a “significant breakthrough” for wildlife crime investigations as wildlife trafficking is a “significant factor” in the loss of habitats and species.
"While forensic science techniques are being used as part of the investigation process, there is a lack of research looking at ‘what works’ in the context, or within the limitations of the wildlife crime investigation and in the environments where the investigations take place,” said Pamment.
The team has made gelatin lifter packs for wildlife rangers in Kenya and Cameroon to use against illegal poaching. They say it uses basic technology that allows rangers to work quickly and safely in the field.