Posts Tagged ‘DNA wildlife forensics’


Wednesday, May 4th, 2011














 “On a personal level, one of my missions is to educate people – to try to reduce demand (for animal parts) by helping the public to know that poaching exists.  



QUESTION: What do the seemingly disparate topics of a wildlife forensics lab, the horrific gorilla bush meat trade, elephant trauma and psychology, and the butterfly black market share in common? 

ANSWER: These are only a few of the many subjects that have been illuminated by Dr. Laurel Neme, gifted environmental journalist and all around Renaissance woman, who aims to translate the current plight of our wildlife and their habitats from a niche science into a very accessible public conversation. 

Neme’s sterling academic credentials (a Master’s degree from University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Princeton University) led her to an early career as an international consultant in natural resource management, working for the U.S. Treasury Department, World Bank, USAID, and a host of influential NGOs with conservation missions.  

 But wildlife is where her heart is, and the increasing decimation of their numbers due to trafficking cartels has given rise to a passion that has fueled her commitment to raise the public’s awareness of this tragedy. 



In fact, the horror of wildlife trafficking and its devastating impact on the animals and the environment, is the dirty secret of much of our retail life; it cuts a wide swath across the disciplines of the Chinese medicine, the exotic food, jewelry, art, pet and clothing worlds.  Few of us have escaped the cache of owning or eating exotic goods, and tragically, most of us are completely oblivious as to the deadly consequences. 

Neme’s goal first, is to bring attention to how intimately we are connected to our wildlife and the ecosystems they support, and second, to help us understand our own capacity to change the calculus of the destructive forces that are eroding our planet at an alarming rate. 

 ABC NIGHTLINE: A short introduction to wildlife trafficking


Neme’s charisma – her infectious laugh and embracing personality have undoubtedly contributed to her success.   In talking with her and in reviewing her work, it occurred to this writer more than once, that she just might be wildlife’s female counterpart to Indiana Jones.   She is apparently fearless and has boundless energy: In her own words, she has “has camped in the Kalahari, investigated walrus carcasses on Alaska's Bering Sea beaches, and gotten lost in the Amazon jungle with the Brazilian Federal Police–all in pursuit of knowledge and a better story.”  

And that’s only the beginning. 

In her highly acclaimed book published in 2009,  Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, Neme has written what has been called a wildlife CSI crime investigation, giving us a glimpse behind the closed doors at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics lab – following the dedicated agents in their painstaking examination of the mutilated corpses and seized parts of trafficked animals, in their efforts to identify the poachers of endangered species.   See the photo gallery on



Animal Investigators

With a Foreword by Richard Leakey


In between writing, Neme hosts a popular weekly radio show, The Wildlife, in which she interviews all manner of wildlife scientists and experts on subjects, ranging from wildlife law enforcement, to the dark side of new species discovery, to elephant poaching in Chad, to the lucrative and dangerous black market in butterflies.  And these are only a few of the more than seventy topics she has covered since she started the show in November 2009.

Neme is also a Fellow at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, and she has an active speaking schedule which takes her to museums and environmental conferences all over the country.   Finally, she has recently signed on as a correspondent with Jeff Corwin’s new wildlife conservation web portal, Jeff Corwin Connect.




Wolf carcasses to be examined in the forensics lab


Action Now+Network recently spoke with Dr. Neme about her life, her love for wildlife and the natural world, and about her ultimate goal:  to bring the public into the conversation about the impact of wildlife trafficking, on  vital ecosystems, and ultimately on the planet.   


A.N.N.: You started out your professional life with degrees in Political Science and Public Policy from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in International and Public Affairs from Princeton University.  From there, your niche has been environmental and wildlife policy and natural resource management. 

Is this what you thought you wanted to do when you completed your doctorate?   What led you down this path — how did you get interested in this field?

I’ve always loved animals, but in college, I got away from that a little bit – got more into the policy side of things and into sustainable development and how people interact with the environment.  However, I have been consistently drawn to the way people interact with wildlife –and I got more engaged in that field as I got more deeply involved.

A.N.N.: In your studies and in your professional life, how do you sense that people engage with wildlife – as a part of the environment or something separate, or as something that they can own? 

Here in the States, especially in the urban areas, you get separated and divorced from your natural landscape.  Once of the reasons I live in Vermont is because I don’t feel divorced –we purposely moved here because our environment is embedded into our subconscious – it is part of how people engage in their daily life. 

In most places around the (developing) world, the immediate environment is not something separate – you rely on animals, they rely on you.  Sometimes they are a big nuisance – when elephants destroy the crop, then what do you do?  You get rid of the problem because it is your livelihood – your survival.  But there are alternative ways, and there have been so many great success stories about how you can take away the conflict—and create win-win situations where the animals can still survive and thrive and so can the people.


A.N.N.: You have a regular radio show called The Wildlife –can you tell me a little about it, how you got started with it. 

I got into it because after I wrote my book, Animal Investigators, I was doing a lot of publicity, including on some great programs such as NPR’s Science Friday and ABC News Nightline – and they did a great job, but the one thing that was missing is that they were still short pieces, without a lot of detail.  And I had the idea of being able to get the story behind the story and being able to talk in depth without the sound bites, and being able to talk about different scientific discoveries and issues.  The show is all related to wildlife and animals and investigations – sometimes scientific investigations and sometimes criminal investigations.


A.N.N.: How do you select your guests and your topics for this show?

I choose the guests:  I do a lot of reading,  keep my hand on the pulse of a lot of issues, and some things just strike my fancy – sometimes its popular, like Chris Palmers book,  Shooting in the Wild — it was getting a lot of attention, and I wanted to explore the issues with him.  Other times, the topic may be obscure but important, like research on porcupine farming in Vietnam, which I see as having broader implication – in this case for policies related to the idea that commercial farming of wildlife is a viable strategy to reduce poaching in the wild.  This study showed it didn’t work. 

I’m always interested in wildlife stories – and the wildlife trade and trafficking doesn’t get a lot of attention, so this was my way of focusing on those stories – but if you focus on the stories (about the trafficking) without getting an appreciation of the species too, it gets depressing and people feel disempowered.  My goal is to empower people, and that’s why I don’t focus exclusively on wildlife trafficking. 

So some of the topics I’ve had, such as Lorises, have a big trafficking component but I also focus on the biology – how strange and how interesting these prosimians are.


A.N.N.: What exactly are Lorises?


A Slow Loris

Lorises are a kind of primate that are found in southeast Asia.   One of the reasons I got interested in Lorises was that I had been working on this story for Nightline – they were interested in doing a story related to my book, Animal Investigators, on the wildlife forensics lab, and I had been looking around for cases where good video was available.  A lot of times, video is not available or not releasable.  This was a case that involved a Hmong refugee woman from Laos living in Minnesota who had imported thousands of wildlife parts for traditional medicine.  Agents had gone undercover and had shown the sales of different animals.  This case was interesting because it showed how one person could have a huge impact, and it also showed the diversity of species that the forensics lab had to identify.

This was especially Interesting because people think of traditional medicine as being Chinese, but it is actually prevalent across Asia in a lot of cultures, using some of the species like salamanders and Lorises,  that we had never known about in the international trade in traditional medicine.

Not much was known about traditional medicine in Laos – this case was one that identified all the species used in Laos.  As part of her sentence, this woman was required to provide info as to what they used these animals for.  However, ….she never gave up much information about that.

So – back to how I find interviewees for my show…

Eventually, I saw an article about some innovative research on the use of lorises in traditional medicine in Laos, which, of course, struck a nerve with me.  I contacted and interviewed the researcher, a woman from London, Anna Kekaris, who was an expert who also looks at the biology of the species. 

People don’t realize that wildlife trafficking is even an issue.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book – before I stumbled upon it (the issue of wildlife trafficking) by talking to a ranger in Kenya who had trained at the lab, most people, including me, didn’t even know that this exists.

That episode has been used to provide info to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for future cases, and also at universities – I know professor here at University of Vermont has assigned it in anthropology case – which shows traditional use of wildlife.


A.N.N.: The idea of your radio show is brilliant.  It lets you straddle academic subject areas with a more popular presentation of the material.  You have the ability to reach a more diverse public. 

Well, another reason I started this show is that it gives me an excuse to investigate interesting subjects. It’s enjoyable –and it gives me control over the product.  I might still do an article related to the subject, but I don’t have to – I already have a deliverable.


A.N.N.:  I want to talk about your book, Animal Investigators, which is about the forensics lab operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Ashland, Oregon.  This is the only dedicated wildlife crime lab (in the world); it is also a lab available to CITES member countries (via a Memorandum of Understanding). 

This book is a really compelling account of how the lab works with the wildlife offices to determine cause of death of the various animals –whether they were natural or illegal – for the purpose of finding and prosecuting the traffickers. 

Yes, this is the only dedicated wildlife crime lab in the world.  There are other wildlife forensics labs but they are attached to a human forensic lab or another entity.  This is the only dedicated wildlife lab.


A.N.N.: What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all about?  How does it operate?  What is it’s role?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is part of the US Department of Interior.  Its Office of Law Enforcement is the place that focuses on investigating wildlife crimes and enforcing our wildlife protection laws, like the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act.   The agents are very dedicated.  I do think they are hampered by a lack of funding and a lack of staff.  You compare the numbers of the DEA or the FBI to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement and you’re talking 5000 DEA agents and 200 U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and of those 200 maybe 50 are in management and aren’t working in the field anymore.  There aren’t a whole lot of agents to police the country. 

(The wildlife forensics lab) is vitally important because the laws are such that even if you have a dead wildlife product, it may or may not be illegal –it depends on what species it is.  If the product is protected, then a crime has been committed.  But if not, then it’s not illegal, even if the victim (the animal) has been turned into a purse.

On the one hand they trying to do more with less, and collaborate more, but there has also been a shift within U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where the older guard – and this is true of all federal law enforcement agents – they are forced to retire at 57 – so there are people retiring and not being replaced because of budget constraints.   A new class just completed training in December will bring the number up to 200, but that’s a lot of “newbies” – and working wildlife cases is very dangerous because they have to be prepared to face people with guns out in remote areas, without backup.     So when you start thinking about it, you have to pick and choose the cases you work on.  They are doing a lot, but there is also a limit. 


Bear bile products


The other area that’s doing great work and often gets discounted, is the training done by regional law enforcement networks like the South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), and the work they are doing about wildlife trafficking when the wildlife is crossing borders.   (In the same vein,) I did an interview with Suwanna Gauntlett, (CEO) of Wildlife Alliance ,  and was talking with her about the difference she is making. When wildlife crosses borders, you can lose them.  But with these networks, you can pass the tracking on to the next guys. 

We’re also seeing INTERPOL making huge busts on wildlife traffickers – INTERPOL doesn’t run the operation, they coordinate different law enforcement agencies.   One of their huge busts (called Operation TRAM) was related to trafficking traditional medicines with illegal wildlife products.  They seized $13 million worth of medicines with illegal ingredients like tiger, bear and rhino and the operation involved 18 countries across 5 continents.  INTERPOL was involved in another huge bust related to tigers – this job involved six tiger range states and twenty-five individual arrests.  So we’re starting to see a shift – trying to make more with what we’ve got. 


 Ivory carvings from walrus tusks


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a model for the rest of the world – and they are amazing.  They’re working really important cases – they’re not catching everything but are doing what they can with what they have.


A.N.N.: One thing I learned from your book is that forensics is an exquisitely painstaking science.  It involves taking the parts, analyzing them, then, waiting for the results, which takes a lot of time.  There is a protocol: You need to understand the solutions that are used, make sure everything is analyzed in exactly the right way so that the results aren’t invalidated.  It seems like one lab could barely scratch the surface.  What do we need to do to get additional labs?

People don’t realize that wildlife trafficking is even an issue.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book – before I stumbled upon the use of forensics to stop wildlife crimes issue by talking to a ranger in Kenya who had trained at the lab, most people, including me, didn’t even realize that wildlife trafficking was so prevalent.

It is vitally important because the laws are such that even if you have a dead wildlife product, it may or may not be illegal –it depends on what species it is.  If the product is protected, then a crime has been committed.  But if not, then it’s not illegal, even if the victim (the animal) has been turned into a purse.

A.N.N.: You have a fascinating examination of the forensics –on what it takes to get to the point where the lab can do the analysis – in this book you talk about the walruses, ruby macaws, and black bears, captured and tortured, essentially for their bile: the chapter on bear bile particularly moved me – as the cruelty involved in obtaining this bile boggles the imagination.

You described that in your book, with the bear bile, when the samples turned out to be pig instead of bear, and the trafficker got off “scott free”.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t actually trafficking bear bile – and that’s the rub — the science itself is neutral.  If it’s not neutral then you question the results, because there are questions of bias. 

This is why a dedicated wildlife crime lab is so important in my mind – because you are able to develop the scientific protocol and do the research necessary to find identifying characteristics of a product and a species, and the complicating factor is that there sometimes is no identifying characteristic.  So you couldn’t tell a chest feather of an eagle from that of a turkey.  But oftentimes there is an identifying characteristic – and the methodology for finding that identifying characteristic varies.  It can be chemistry, morphology, or genetic.


Measuring seized bear claws in the lab


Using the example of bear gall bladders, they can be fresh frozen, dried, crystallized, or they can be used as an ointment – so you need a characteristic that that says its bear in all of those forms to be scientifically valid.  For bear bile, the identifying characteristic is unique levels of three bile acids.  It’s important to realize that the identifying characteristic may vary depending on the part and the species.  It is extremely complicated, it takes time and innovative thinking.  

Once the scientists have developed the protocol and it’s been scientifically accepted then anyone can run the analysis.  In other words, once a diagnostic characteristic is proven and a methodology for finding it is established, it can be used by other forensic labs.

It seems to me that the public has to be engaged on two different levels:  first,  they have to understand from a moral perspective that it is a terrible thing to cause such pain and injury to an animal – and second, the viewers/listeners should be empowered, to feel that they can do something. 


A.N.N.: Tell me about your gig with Jeff Corwin Connect.  He is an icon in the field, his name is identified with Animal Planet and wildlife adventures.

 I’ve always admired Jeff Corwin – professionally, in my mind, he’s stood apart.   I’ve been impressed because he takes complex issues and makes them funny, yet he still provides a ton of information.  He has a very enjoyable way that I have felt is not exploitive.   He’s a wildlife biologist – he has a Masters degree, he has tons of field experience, has a great way of making the information accessible and entertaining to everybody.  The issue is so serious, so tragic, it’s easy to throw up your hands and feel you can’t do anything. 

The skill that Jeff Corwin has is to provide the facts and to make the issues accessible, popular, sexy.  


A.N.N.: Is there a way to make this information on trafficking plain and simple for the public, so they can clearly understand the consequences of purchasing these items – so that every time they buy something with rhino horn in it, or bear bile –that they understand that each purchase means first, the torture and horrific death of an innocent animal – and second, an irreversible impact on the ecosystem.

L.N.: In terms of reaching the public, there are a couple of issues that are important:  it seems to me that the public has to be engaged on two different levels:  first, they have to understand the impact of their actions, from pain and injury to an animal to the effect on the ecosystem.  Second,  the viewers/listeners should be empowered, to feel that they can do something. 

The issue is about saving the species and being a part of saving the environment, and preserving the ecosystem, and not about laying all this guilt on the listeners.


A.N.N.: We are all stewards of this plant, we need to pass this information to our children and grandchildren, so that our planet can stay healthy – if one species goes, it throws the entire ecosystem off kilter – you were talking about this as well, in your book, about the Macaws.  And I think that people don’t normally think about this, that everything has an effect, we are all connected to the wildlife, to the environment.

In this context, we are all responsible.  Celebrities, in particular, have a responsibility – when you see (reality TV stars like) the Kardashians, for example, filmed getting out of a car wearing fur, or (American idol contestant Adam) Lambert wearing python boots – there is a great opportunity to educate people..Image becomes very important.


A.N.N.: What about the poaching cartels?  Is there anything the public can do about them?

When I started writing this book:  I’m often asked when I give presentations, “what surprised you most.” 

I think the thing that surprises me most is how pervasive (wildlife trafficking) it is–what’s interesting is that I, who am fairly knowledgeable about it, was still shocked to learn how pervasive it is.   I had this image – do you remember in 1989 when the international ban of commercial trade of ivory was announced – Richard Leakey (famed anthropologist and former Director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service) had been the person behind all this – burning this pile of ivory.  To me that was an amazing symbol –He burned this pile of ivory –he was burning away millions of dollars because he believed that that was the right thing to do to save the species.  

In fact, (with respect to elephant poaching) there are a lot of one-off cases, but you have this image that it’s over – that elephants are coming back – but the reality is that it’s not the case – there is a HUGE volume of ivory being trafficked.




Ivory carvings made from walrus tusks


Same with the rhinos and rhino horn.  I was at a dinner one night with some Princeton alums, giving the presentation, and there was this guy from Kenya –talking about how rhinos had been at the brink of extinction, and had made a huge recovery.   But in past three to five years they are again on the brink of extinction because of poaching.  In 2010 in South Africa, over 300 rhinos were killed for their horn.  Yet, despite the rumors, there has never been any scientific proof that rhino horn has any medicinal value whatsoever.

This is tragic – and more and more you find the poaching and sale of ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone and more, is being directed by organized syndicates.   There is a lot of evidence for (syndicated) wildlife trafficking although it is mostly anecdotal.  John Sellar from CITES has written several interesting papers related to anecdotal evidence– and Bill Clark (former head of Interpol’s Wildlife Crime Working Group) has too.  

Then, Sam Wasser, from University of Washington has been able to prove through DNA forensics that ivory shipments are linked, that families of elephants (in a geographic region) have been attacked.  

What this tells us is that the driver for poaching used to be poverty – and now (we know) the driver is wealth.   He (Wasser) was able to genetically match the samples in the trafficked ivory in Singapore with related animals living in a herd in a small geographic region.  Given where the transport had gone, one can prove that a syndicate was equipping poachers to kill a herd.   They proved it in two cases of seized ivory that it analyzed.  So (this evidence) is turning on its head, the notion that we’re dealing with a one-off type of hunter.  Now they (the syndicates) are equipping poachers. 

It’s the same with rhinos. – there is a lot of proof in South Africa that syndicates are equipping poachers –they are going in w/high powered rifles, helicopters and infrared binoculars.  The case of one syndicate of traffickers who were arrested in September was supposed to go to trial in South Africa on April 11, 2011 (but it’s now postponed to September).

On a personal level, one of my missions is to educate people – to try to reduce demand (for animal parts) by helping them to know that poaching exists.  So many people don’t know this problem exists and just the knowledge that it exists will build support for wildlife law enforcement and stronger penalties.   More prosecutors will take the cases because they feel it is more important, and if they understand the impact on the ecosystem.


A.N.N.: A lot of these cartels originate In Asia, and in southeast Asia, and their use of ivory is deeply embedded in their cultural beliefs.  How do you begin to change the beliefs of a culture? 

On the one hand, yes, it is part of the culture.  The animal parts, the bear bile, the shark fins, the rhino horns and tiger parts are used in Chinese medicines and is a part of the cultural identity.  Yet culture is not static.

In many cases, these products have never been proven to have medicinal properties.  On the other hand, bear bile does have medicinal properties, but you can also get it in synthesized versions.   And there are herbal alternatives.  Plus, many traditional medicine practitioners in China and elsewhere are against using bear bile because the cruelty (of extracting the bile) takes your breath away.  Harmony with nature is part of the Chinese and Asian cultures – so this conforms to cultural beliefs, too. 

In China, you have both traditional medicine and manufactured/processed medicine.  It isn’t so black and white, and not everyone in China wants traditional medicine using endangered wildlife.  There are a huge number of traditional medical doctors who are supporting alternatives.


There are many hopeful signs of a cultural shift.   We’re seeing that public pressure can have an impact. 

For example – there is a big bear bile company, the largest bear bile company in southern China –I did a blog on it –it is interesting because this company wanted to list on the local stock exchange to raise money to expand its business.  That meant increasing their “stock” from 470 bears to 1200 bears.  But what I found so interesting was that once it made the listing, there was a huge backlash on the internet with lots of tweeting, and other social communication, and the angry reaction was coming from the Chinese public.  Jill Robinson (President of Animals Asia) is one of my personal heroes.  She has helped to create a movement in China.  She said that China is waking up to this cruelty.  It is really encouraging.  

That’s one inkling that change is happening in China. 

There is another example of backlash: 

Citibank had a shark fin soup promotion in Hong Kong – the Hong Kong division of Citibank was offering credit card holders 15% off a shark fin dinner .  There was a highly visible Facebook campaign that was trying to stop the shark fin promotion – but it was the Chinese consumers themselves who were pushing it.  In the end, Citibank withdrew the promotion. 

Public pressure does have an impact.  We are beginning to see pressure from within China – the Chinese consumers are saying this promotion will negatively impact Citibank.

Attitudes do change –even it is something traditional, attitudes can change.

Here’s how the public can be a part of the campaign to stop wildlife poaching.


Laurel Neme website


Jeff Corwin Connect


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