Dealing in illegal wildlife products is a complex international affair, and like good business school graduates, many of the traffickers use computers to maintain their records. The Ashland lab recently hired an expert who specializes in breaking computer codes and encryption to decipher such information when it comes into the hands of enforcement agents.
Wildlife forensic experts can already distinguish some species of animals through the separation and examination of proteins in the blood. Within five years, Goddard predicts, DNA analysis of the chromosomes of different animals will be one of the basic detection methods in wildlife prosecutions. A DNA "fingerprint" can provide positive identification of an animal—not just its species but the specific animal—from minute tissue samples.
Not everything at the wildlife lab is high tech. One of its major goals is to create a collection of bird and small animal skeletons to be used for comparison with bones found at crime scenes. Sometimes when a potential skeleton comes in, Goddard traps insects from under the porch at his home in Ashland and puts them in a container with the newly arrived carcass. "We get nice clean bones and very happy beetles," he says.
More than 100 nations have signed a convention on international trade in endangered species. Technologies and skills developed in the Ashland lab will be important to other nations in their enforcement efforts. However, much of the market for illegal products from endangered species derives from traditions and cultures within countries. The Wildlife Forensics Lab makes accommodations for such traditions when it can. For instance, bald and golden eagles are protected species. Yet the feathers of these birds have important roles in many Native American religious ceremonies. The lab functions as a national eagle repository for golden and bald eagle carcasses from all over the U.S. The remains are distributed to Native Americans on a request basis. "We only find 300 to 400 eagles a year; we're about 900 requests behind," Goddard says.
Cows and horses graze peacefully in a field across the road from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. It is a pleasant scene to the casual observer. To one familiar with the work that is being done within those walls, the scene may be even more comforting. There, inside that man-made structure, scientists are developing the expertise and the techniques that promise to balance the scales a little more evenly on behalf of all animals.