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

Photo by Jacob Dyer on Unsplash

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!

Photo by Emmanuel Higgins on Unsplash

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.


Further Reading

Wildlife Pathologist Dr Lydia Tong gets to the Heart of the Matter

Wildlife CSI

To Catch a (Wildlife) Thief

2 Responses to “WildENFORCE – The CSIs Behind Illegal Wildlife Trafficking”

  1. sprijaya says:

    Hi Ruby! Thanks for reading my article! I did a little bit of reading on captive-breeding and it’s basically animals being bred in well-documented and approved facilities such as zoos or wildlife reserves! In terms of the animals being sold and being kept as pets, it depends on the breed and the agency (from what I’ve read)! It’s meant to help fight against wildlife poaching because poachers actually just rip these animals from the wild.

    But there are struggles with captive-breeding as well, some poachers actually found legal loopholes which allows them to poach from the wild and register them as “captive-bred”.

    I hope this answers your question!

  2. Ruby Mcdowell says:

    Really interesting article! Curious about what it means for an animal to be labelled as “captive-bred”, if they are does it mean they can be sold or kept as pets?