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SOS Rhino : In the News : Unique facility looks for signs of foul play

Unique facility looks for signs of foul play

By Carolyn Jung
Mercury News
Posted on Tue, Dec. 23, 2003

ASHLAND, Ore. - A guitar constructed out of a sea turtle's shiny shell. A $10,000 shawl woven from the ultra-soft hair of Tibetan antelopes. A yard-long ivory tusk from an African elephant. A purse made out of a whole caiman crocodile, with its head still attached. And a ceramic mug affixed, inexplicably, atop a pair of real Canada goose feet.

These are examples of evidence that comes into the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, the only one of its kind in the world.

Like television's popular "CSI" show or real-life police crime labs elsewhere, this one examines evidence to try to link victim to crime scene to suspect. The only difference is that the victims here are animals.

Sent by federal agents, their remains arrive daily by UPS and Federal Express -- teeth, talons, carcasses, stomach contents, tins of sturgeon eggs otherwise known as caviar, a bottle of rhino-horn "medicinal pills," a whooping crane with pellets lodged in its brain and even a 300-pound bear. All have succumbed to questionable deaths -- not attributable to another animal, nature or self-defense. And all are possibly protected, restricted or endangered creatures.

As lab director Ken Goddard explained, it would be easy to prove that an endangered African elephant had been killed if the whole elephant were found. And it would be straightforward to convince a jury or judge that a crime had been committed if the elephant could be brought into court as evidence.

But what do you do if you have only part of the elephant? And that part has been so processed and altered that you can no longer tell it is an elephant? If all you have, instead, is a chic gray briefcase made from what may or may not be elephant hide?

That's where the lab comes in.

It was established in 1989 after authorities realized this type of evidence was falling through the cracks: The FBI didn't handle wildlife products, museums rarely had forensic scientists on their staffs, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had no centralized department to do the work.

"There had been a huge gap," said Craig Hoover, deputy director for Traffic North America, the world's largest wildlife monitoring program, and a former Fish and Wildlife port inspector. "It's been invaluable to have someone with not only the expertise in identifying wildlife products and discerning parts of an animal, but with the ability to go into a courtroom to positively identify whether it's a protected animal or not. Their work has expanded the breadth of cases that can be investigated."

The lab examines evidence not only for Fish and Wildlife inspectors and state fish and game commissions, but for 162 other countries around the globe that have signed the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Located on four acres of land donated by Southern Oregon State College, the lab employs 20 scientists, including experts on reptiles, mammals and birds.

It is run by Goddard, a former San Bernardino homicide crime scene investigator. In his spare time he's written eight crime novels, including "First Evidence," about extraterrestrial life discovered by a crime lab. It is reportedly being considered for a movie. Additionally, he's a consultant to "CSI" for animal information.

He joked, though, that the comparisons end there. "Unlike `CSI,' we at the lab try to avoid the suspects," he said with a laugh.

Also unlike the TV show, where cases get wrapped up neatly in one hour, it might take the lab five minutes to determine a feather came from an endangered bald eagle -- or it might take far longer. For instance, the lab has been working since 1989 on bottles of sea turtle oil from Mexico, trying to determine if the fat -- which had been boiled, then filtered -- actually came from endangered sea turtles. The jury's still out.

Federal agents credit the lab for making a large dent in the worldwide caviar smuggling trade through its DNA analysis of sturgeon eggs that can determine the species from which they were taken and whether that fish is protected by law. With the lab's expert help, 70 percent of the biggest caviar dealers have been jailed on smuggling and forgery charges, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"DNA techniques are important, especially because so much of the seafood trade is international now and a lot of transport is done without the whole fish," said Ellen Pikitch, director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science at the University of Miami. "It's a way to keep track of how many fish are being killed and where they are coming from in order to enforce U.S. and international regulations."

Hoover also points to groundbreaking work the lab has done in identifying African elephant ivory, particularly after imports of it were banned in the late 1980s. When the ban took effect, trade in mammoth and mastodon ivory suddenly skyrocketed suspiciously. Because those ancient creatures are extinct, there is no law against trading in their ivory. And because mammoth ivory looks like elephant ivory to the naked eye, a way had to be developed to distinguish between the two.

It took deputy lab director Ed Espinoza a year to do that. After studying cross-sections of ivory from elephants and mammoths, he discovered that faint, tweed-like imprints on each differed slightly. On mammoth ivory, the pattern was made up of angles less than 90 degrees, on average; on elephant ivory, angles were more than 120 degrees.

"It was only then that we realized that elephant ivory was being smuggled in as an extinct species," Hoover said, "and how much of it was going on."

These fine patterns can also reveal whether a piece of purported ivory actually came from the tooth of a walrus, whale or hippopotamus or the tusk of a wart hog.

On a recent visit to the lab, a black wolf with bullet fragments in its head was undergoing a necropsy, or animal autopsy. Nearby, technicians studied bullets that had been found in other animals -- or in hunters' guns -- with the same type of high-magnification electron microscope used by Scotland Yard.

In another room, a spectrometer shot a laser light into a sample of fiber to see if was man-made or from the body of a beast. Fibers are polymers -- chains of identical molecules, lined up like railroad cars. When hit by laser light, each type of fiber vibrates in a characteristic way. It can be identified by its vibrations, Espinoza said, much as you might pick out a friend who is an especially wild dancer from the crowd in a dance club.

While this method can identify synthetic fibers, such as rayon or polyester, it can't be used to distinguish one type of natural fiber from another, he said. That's because all plant fibers are made of cellulose, and all animal fibers are made of keratin. So additional tests are needed to tell where a natural fiber came from.

In one case this technology was used to look at a cougar that had been bound with rope and shot, he said. Before it died, the cougar ate through the bindings on its paws; then it was tied up again. The lab found fibers in its teeth and stomach, and confirmed that the fibers were made of the same material as the rope found in the suspect's truck.

To allow even more work to be done, plans are under way to expand the 22,000-square-foot facility. The $22 million project, expected to be completed in 2008, will triple the size of the lab and include a Biosafety Level 3 containment area for evidence that may harbor contagious diseases.

"In police work, when you're investigating murderers and rapists, you'd really like to work yourself out of a job. But you learn that is not going to happen," Goddard said. "In our case here, it's the same. There are a lot of people willing to cheat, to take more than their fair share of wildlife, and it's probably not going to stop anytime in my lifetime."

The boxes and crates that arrive daily only confirm that.

For more on the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, go to