Forensic science and native animal conservation

The illegal laundering of wildlife is the second greatest threat to global species loss after habitat destruction. Despite this, the global billion-dollar industry lacks regulation and robust forensic methodology for detecting and monitoring criminal activity. The Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and TRAFFIC have recently identified huge discrepancies between the number of ‘captive-bred’ animals being exported overseas and the actual captive breeding capabilities of the species and the regions.

One example is the iconic short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus). Short-beaked echidnas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity. Even with a team of experts, Taronga has produced 3 puggles in 30 years. With similar low success rates across leading institutions, and high neonatal fatality, how does Indonesia manage to export so many ‘captive-bred’ echidnas each year under a yearly quota of 50?  The answer, sadly, is illegal poaching of wild populations.

Up until now there has been no scientific tool available to test if an animal has been raised in captivity or taken from the wild. Past methods have relied on vague descriptions of colours and other subjective indexes, but nothing that can prosecute the traders. Taronga’s Forensic team has developed an exciting, novel method that uses stored elemental signatures in keratinous tissues (quills, hair, scales, scutes and fur) to identify the origin of the animal. The basis of our hypothesis is an animal that has been foraging in the wild will have a permanent signature that reflects the diversity of naturally available prey items, while an animal that has been raised in captivity will have a signature that reflects a simple commercial feed or low diverse diet. 

Our forensic team have conducted a pilot trial to test the hypothesis on wild and captive echidnas at Taronga zoo with quill clipping, obtained much like cutting your nails. This is the first time stable isotope analysis and nuclear x-ray fluorescence have been used together in a forensic setting using mammalian tissue. Our initial findings are extremely promising with several elements showing significant differences consistently between the wild and captive echidna groups.

Our next steps will be to determine if the same elements show a significant difference across other species impacted by the illegal wildlife trade such as the pangolin, freshwater tortoises and parrot species. If successful, this science would assist authorities in prosecuting fraudulent traders, address welfare issues associated with poaching and back-yard trading, and ultimately improve the sustainability of wild populations.