Wildlife Forensics: Detection & Discovery in the Animal World

wildlifeforensicsAt the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services Forensics Lab in Ashland a crack team of forensic scientists analyze evidence from around the world and help solve crimes that threaten wildlife. This scientific crime-stopping effort is the focus of Wildlife Forensics: Detection and Discovery in the Animal World at the High Desert Museum through June 8.


In this hands-on exhibit Museum visitors will step into the shoes of a forensic expert investigating the case of a cougar killing. They will study the scene of the crime, gather clues, conduct lab analysis and present their solution for “whodunit.”


The exhibit features a desert scene, a port scene and a host of lab exercises that walk visitors through the process of forensic investigations. Learn about DNA tracking, ballistics and chemical analysis. See how scientists lift fingerprints and tire tracks. Recognize the difference between ivory, bone and antler and help stop the trade of illegal animal products.


Anyone who cares about animals or loves a good mystery will enjoy this in-depth examination of a world-wide problem.


“I think this exhibit is going to be a huge eye-opener for people,” said John Goodell, Curator of Natural History. “You’ll see not only the extent of the problem of illegal animal trade, but also the extent of the effort it takes to solve these crimes. These investigations involve everyone from game wardens and state police to the Coast Guard, fish and wildlife inspectors, customs agents and even scientists at NOAA.”


The black market for animal products and poaching is a $20 billion a year business — almost as lucrative as the import of drugs and firearms, according to Fish and Wildlife officials. Elephant tusks, caviar, certain species of tree, coral, fur and macaw feathers are just a few of items that are frequently traded on the black market.


The African Black Rhino has been hunted to extinction for its precious horn. In the Himalayan highlands poachers hunt endangered Tibetan antelope for its cashmere-like fur. In Russia, Caspian Sea sturgeon are caught for the coveted Beluga caviar. And here in the high desert, black bears are routinely killed for their valuable gall bladders and claws. All these cases find their way to the lab in Ashland.


According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Flora and Fauna (CITES) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of enforcing dozens of international laws and treaties, including the Endangered Species Act. For all this, there is only one official crime lab in the world  dedicated to crimes against wildlife, and it’s in Ashland, Oregon.


“The scope of the work they do down in Ashland is truly amazing,” Goodell said. “They practice all the same forensic techniques as a human crime lab, but they have thousands of plant and animal species to deal with. The criminalistics of the Ashland team include morphology, pathology, chemical analysis, ballistics and DNA testing, and we’re trying to incorporate all those things. They have been very helpful in the planning and design of this exhibit.”

The High Desert Museum routinely opens 10 new exhibits a year. Wildlife Forensics runs through June 8.


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