America’s Anti-Poaching Private Eyes

Inside the country’s only wildlife forensics lab, where scientists hunt down black-market animal smugglers.
Fifteen miles north of California, deep in Southern Oregon’s wine country, in a town known for vegan restaurants and an annual Shakespeare Festival, is the world’s only wildlife forensics lab.In the upcoming issue of T, The New York Times’ style magazine, Jody Rosen offers a fascinating inside look at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory. Rosen describes a Wes Anderson-esque lab, filled with taxidermied jungle cats, tropical bird feathers, whale tusks, and monkey hides—evidence in the global fight against wildlife trafficking, a $19 billion business with ties to the Russian and Irish mobs as well as terrorist groups like Al Shabab and Darfur’s Janjaweed militias.

The lab was first established in 1989, and in the 25 years since, wildlife crime has transformed from the occasional hunter going after big game as wall decor to the world’s fourth-largest black market industry. In addition to the environmental harm caused by wildlife crime, the illegal enterprise has recently posed cause for national security concerns. Rosen notes that in a 2013 executive order to crack down on wildlife crime, President Obama called wildlife trafficking an “international crisis” that is “fueling instability and undermining security.”

With more than 35,000 animals and plant species considered endangered or threatened by the 180 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, the lab’s first task is identifying to which species the bones, skin, horns, or plumage they are analyzing belongs.

“A traditional forensic investigation begins with a classic question: Whodunit?” writes Rosen. “At the Ashland lab, the mystery is often more fundamental: What is it?”

The lab has amassed over 60,000 DNA samples and pioneered some groundbreaking scientific advances. The 19 scientists on staff have figured out how to get DNA of the animal whose skin was used to make a leather handbag. They’ve caught caviar smugglers with genetic information obtained from a single fish egg. In the spring of 2010, the scientists were tasked with extracting fluid from the lungs of over 200 dead pelicans, and then working with U.S. Coast Guard investigators to match that fluid to that which flooded the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill. Each pelican was treated like an individual homicide case.

Rosen’s feature shines a spotlight on the a little-known law enforcement agency tackling one of the world’s largest criminal industries from the comfort of a town that, she writes, “is home to some 20,000 residents and, it seems reasonable to surmise, exactly twice that many Birkenstock sandals.”


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