BOOKS: Animal Investigators: How the world’s first wildlife forensic lab is solving crimes and saving endangered species

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2010:

Animal Investigators:
How the world’s first wildlife forensic lab is solving crimes
and saving endangered species
by Laurel A. Neme, Ph.D.
Scribner (c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of
the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2009.
256 pages, hardcover. $25.00.

Animal Investigators, by International Institute for
Sustainable Development Reporting Services newsletter editor Laurel
Neme, focuses on the work of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service animal
forensics laboratory, on the campus of Southern Oregon University in
Ashland, Oregon. The lab supports the work of 200 federal wildlife
law enforcement agents, every state fish and game agency, and the
wildlife law enforcement agencies of all nations belonging to the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Neme begins with the late 1989 discovery of 415 headless
walrus carcasses along the shores of the remote Seward Peninsula, in
northwestern Alaska.

Native Alaskan leaders and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
agents suspected that the walruses were poached for tusk ivory. Just
a few months earlier the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species had enacted a global ban on commercial trade in
African elephant ivory. History appeared to be repeating itself.
Commerce in Asian elephant ivory was banned in 1976. Traffickers
soon discovered the use of walrus ivory as an accessible substitute.
Russian, Canadian, and Alaskan walrus hunters then legally killed
10,000 to 12,000 walruses per year. Buying the tusks from the
legally killed walruses partially replaced the use of elephant
ivory–and stimulated an explosion of walrus poaching in 1981.
Intensive investigation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
brought several convictions, and brought a requirement that
so-called subsistence walrus hunters in Alaska now must try to
recover the meat of any walruses they kill.
Before the development of the walrus ivory market such a
requirement would not have become necessary. Walrus meat was a food
staple for native Alaskan, who fed the leftovers to their sled dogs.
Blubber was used for cooking. Tusks were fashioned into harpoons.
Excessive hunting was dangerous, as well as wasteful, and was not
part of the traditional native culture. Defending their part in
whaling and the fur trade at the time, some native leaders in 1990
sought immediately to distance themselves from the walrus killing.
Others insisted that some of their people had only salvaged the heads
of walruses who died from natural causes.
During the next several years investigators from the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service forensic laboratory in Ashland, Oregon
gathered evidence by dissecting rotting carcasses, measuring fat
layers, and determining bone weathering patterns. Eventually 29
alleged walrus poachers were sent to prison.
Neme proceeds from the case of the headless walruses to
examine the illegal trade in bear parts, and then the traffic in
wildlife and wild animal body parts from Brazil. In 1998 a Fish &
Wildlife Service special agent stationed at the Dulles International
Airport had a hunch about a package destined for Ohio that originated
from a region of Brazil known for illegal animal trading. The
package contained feathers from endangered birds. The ensuing
investigation uncovered an artifact smuggling ring.
With cooperation from both countries and help from the
Ashland forensic lab, the traffickers were brought to justice. The
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service trained some Brazilian counterparts to
more effectively monitor wildlife trafficking, and Brazil changed a
few laws to better protect endangered species, but enforcement of
the legislation remains weak, largely due to corruption and a lack
of political will to stop any commerce that makes money.
–Debra J. White

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