WildENFORCE – The CSIs Behind Illegal Wildlife Trafficking
What connects a wildlife pathologist, a wildlife nutritionist, a conservation biologist, an ecologist, a nuclear technologist, a forensic food biochemist and an expert in machine learning?
They are all Wildlife Crime Scene Investigators! They have a shared passion to help fight against illegal wildlife trade both in Australia and globally.
This team of scientists are the major collaborators behind the WildENFORCE project. This project has become the leading voice of wildlife crime forensics.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
Did you know one of the top four most lucrative criminal networks involve illegal wildlife trade?
Yup! The estimated worth of the illegal wildlife network is between $7 billion to $23 billion annually!
The breeding conditions of these exotic animals is very hard to determine. There are no tests to prove whether an animal has been bred in captivity or stolen from the wild. Therefore, many poachers have been able to hide their trails.
The Short-Beaked Echidna
Take the short-beaked Echidna, for example.
A shy-natured animal native to Australia, and also found in Papua New Guinea – it has become Australia’s most widespread native mammal.
However, captive-breeding of these mammals have proven to be difficult. Since 1990, only 50 of captive-bred echidnas survived. As a result, these echidnas have been the subject of illegal wildlife laundering.
Traders have found a loop in the legislation. This has allowed false paperwork, which register many wild echidnas as captive-bred instead.
Due to the lack of regulations in this field, not much can be done to combat illegal wildlife trade.
Dr. Lydia Tong and WildENFORCE
For Dr. Lydia Tong, a Sydney-based wildlife pathologist, and her team – solving this difficult issue is their number one goal. They aim to develop new technologies which can help prove these animals are truly being illegally poached from the wild.
Using two scientific techniques – stable isotype analysis and X-ray nuclear fluorescence, they are able to determine under which conditions these animals were bred in.
This technology is able to identify different chemical components in keratin. Keratin is the structural protein found in feather, quills and fur of many animals.
Interestingly, the chemical components of keratin vary depending on the animal’s diet. So, hypothetically, a wild echidna which forages for food would have a different keratin make-up from a captive-bred echidna.
So, the WildENFORCE team decided to test this technology on the short-beaked echidnas. Surprisingly they were able to differentiate keratin compositions between wild and captive-bred animals!
Australia at the Forefront of Illegal Wildlife Trade
The WildENFORCE team’s discovery attracted widespread attention, especially from the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) team. This positioned Australia as a leading force in the war against wildlife criminals.
Dr. Tong and her team now aim to build a keratin reference library for many other endangered species such as the pangolin and shingleback lizards. They also hope to develop other tests which can be done on handheld devices. By doing so, they are hoping to limit illegal trafficking.
Fighting against these wildlife criminals is a big challenge going forward but protecting these living treasures would be worth it. By bringing awareness and educating people to the world of illegal wildlife trafficking, we can help crack down on these criminals.