Investigating Animal Crimes

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory

Wolves wait to undergo a necropsy at the US Fish and Wildlife Service forensics laboratory.

Ever wonder where did the feathers on your fancy piece of jewelry came from? What about the ivory in your souvenir statue? The illegal wildlife trade nets about $20 billion a year — less than drugs but more than weapons — and ounce-for-ounce, some animal products (such as rhino horn and bear gall bladders) are literally worth more than gold. With so much money on the line, to whom does one turn when someone breaks an animal protection law?

Most forensics labs are busy trying to solve human crimes; they don't have time to find out who killed a walrus. TIME talked to Dr. Laurel Neme about her book, Animal Investigators, in which she explains the difficulties of tracking the wildlife black market, and the one laboratory — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon — that tries to stop it. (See photos of the forensics lab mentioned in Neme's book.)

People read articles about poachers in Africa, and they think, 'They're over there, but as long as I don't buy something made out of ivory they're not affecting me.' And that just isn't true, is it?

That's exactly it. People know it's happening, the way they know that illegal drugs are also being smuggled, but when you don't see it you can't recognize the impact. You can easily support [illegal wildlife trade] unknowingly. You're on vacation, you see something and it's a beautiful piece. It's in a museum shop and they're selling it, it must be legal, right? You don't really know.

I never realized how hard it can be to catch the criminals. I just assumed that airport authorities would open a container and go, "Yep, that's tiger." But then you talk about bear gall bladders being ground into medicine...

And even if the animal is identifiable, it's still hard to know what you're looking at. Take bear for example. Do you have a hunting license? Does it apply to this specific type of bear and in the specific location where you caught it? Was it within the bag limit? Was it in season? You can't tattoo a gall bladder and you don't know if it's legal or not. It's the same with caviar. You have legal caviar, illegal caviar, illegal caviar being passed off as legal to escape detection, and legal caviar passed off as illegal to get a higher price. How do you tell what is what? It's very complex.

The first part of your book focuses on walrus hunting in Alaska. You mention that it's hard to make good hunting laws because of the difficulty in knowing what level of hunting is sustainable. Why is that?

Walruses are interesting because the last census on them was done in 1990, when they estimated that there were about 200,000 walrus. But how do you account for walruses? They did it via airplane, by flying over them and literally counting them. You have to make sure you're counting them all but not double-counting. When you don't have an accurate baseline you don't have a good understanding of how the species works and what the threat is. Walrus are an ice-dependent species so there are also climate change concerns. The loss of ice is affecting their reproduction and the success of young walruses. (See pictures of global warming.)

So should we stop hunting them completely?

I don't advocate stopping hunting because it's a cultural thing. You have to remember that traditionally, animals have been hunted and used without problem for thousands and thousands of years. Native peoples use walruses for food. They build boats out of their hide. And ivory has been a means of income — a bartering tool — for generations. But then there are the people who will kill an entire walrus just for its ivory tucks, and that is illegal. It's not hunting that's the problem, it's the wastefulness and the indiscriminate nature of hunting. [At the same time], hunters are typically the ones who report these problems. Without hunters, you probably wouldn't catch as many poachers as you do.

How important is it to work with these native cultures. And how successful has law enforcement been?

Working with communities is key because local people benefit economically from the resources around them and they value them. African elephants used to be poached mostly by farmers — an elephant would raid someone's crops and it's a year's worth of work and their entire income, so of course he's going do everything to stop it. But now you have organized gangs that come and kill groups of elephants on purpose for profit.

The law has often tried to retain the rights of indigenous people, you see it in Canadian bear hunting laws, you see it with bald eagle feathers here in the States, you see it with walrus and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But people try to take advantage of that by hiring local people to poach for them. There's the case that I cover in Animal Investigators about the guy who was working with government officials in Brazil, who would illegally hire native Indians to poach the animals. They'd do grocery lists, it would be like, "I need 44 jaguar teeth, I need this many scarlet McCaw feathers," and then he'd hire workers to make the so-called authentic pieces as opposed to natives.

Do you have any stories about a species that the law has successfully helped?

Sort of. I have a good and bad example in the same animal — the rhino. In the '90s you saw a big resurgence in the rhino population because they were listed as endangered and protected. De-horning programs and relocation programs met with great success and the anti-poaching laws were working, but recently that has changed. Within the last 2-3 years you've seen a huge resurgence in rhino trade. Organized crime is getting involved in the rhino horn trade. They use them for daggers in the Middle East and for traditional Chinese medicine.

It sounds like an ebb and flow; we conserve animals for a little while so they can grow in numbers and then we hunt them again.

One wildlife officer explained it to me by saying, "It's a fad thing." That makes sense, right? Maybe rhinos are in right now.

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