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In fight against wildlife trafficking, Brazil police turn to nuclear science

  • New technology can tell if an animal sold in the legal wildlife trade was bred in captivity or captured illegally from the wild.
  • Through analysis of stable isotopes in claw and fur samples, police in Brazil’s Amazonas state can now identify an animal’s geographic origin, as well as trace the provenance of timber.
  • The new technology helps to uncover wildlife “warming,” the practice by breeders of trying to pass off wild-caught animals as captive-bred.
  • Experts say it should also be used to identify catch sites to allow for seized animals to be released in their home locations.

In Brazil, as in many other biodiverse countries around the world, the commercial trade of some species of wildlife is allowed — as long as the animal was bred in captivity and not captured from the wild. But identifying illegally captured wild animals in the possession of authorized breeders has always been a challenge for government agencies in Brazil. In many cases, proof of fraud is only possible through laboratory analysis, but wildlife trafficking operations rarely have access to such technology.

In Brazil’s Amazonas state, the police are bringing the big guns to this high-tech fight, investing in cutting-edge equipment that they hope will give them an edge in tackling wildlife trafficking and other environmental crimes.

Since January, the state branch of the Federal Police has been using an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to detect cases of wildlife “warming” — the practice by traders of trying to pass off wild-caught animals as captive-bred ones.

“We are the first Brazilian police force to implement this technique. The Federal Police is on the cutting edge,” says Alexandre Silva Saraiva, who until April was the regional superintendent of the police force.

The technology didn’t come cheap. The Amazonas Federal Police invested 2.6 million reais ($514,000) for the equipment and laboratory infrastructure. But in a way, it paid for itself: of the total amount, 2.5 million reais ($494,000) came from fines collected from environmental violators, and the rest from the police budget.

Saraiva says the expense is justified, given that the technology, known as stable isotope analysis, “is a very versatile technique that can be adopted in a variety of cases.”

“There are numerous forensic applications, and wildlife tracking is one of them. This is why having the equipment available at the Amazonas state headquarters is a huge step in combating crime in the region,” he says.

These other applications include identifying illegally logged and traded timber, illegally mined gold and other minerals, and tracing the provenance of illicit substances like narcotics.

A lab technician uses a spectrometer, one of the new pieces of equipment bought by the Amazonas Federal Police for the analysis of stable isotopes in wildlife samples. Image courtesy of the Amazonas Federal Police.

Identifying an animal’s geographic origin
Stable isotope analysis works on the basis that chemical elements can have different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus. These different variants of a given element are called isotopes, and those that don’t degrade over time — i.e. lose a neutron or two — are known as stable isotopes. The ratios of these stable isotopes to one another vary by region, so finding a certain ratio in the food ingested by an animal, say, or from its fur is the equivalent of a barcode that can point to where it came from.

“We can analyze the claws and fur of mammals, which are composed of keratin, which is in turn composed of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen,” says Gabriela Bielefeld Nardotto, a biologist and professor at the University of Brasília’s Department of Ecology. The ratios of stable isotopes of these elements in an animal’s keratin will be the same as in the foods they eat and the water in which they live, she says. Essentially, the technology adopted by the Amazonas Federal Police makes it possible to identify an animal’s geographic origin.

Saraiva says knowing this provenance serves as a baseline. “This exam allows us to compare the isotopes in the sample collected from the seized animal with the feed or water given them by the breeder,” he says. “If the isotopic ratios don’t match, it means there has been illegal activity. This is enough for a police investigation.”

Saraiva says this tool helps uncover cases of wildlife “warming,” where breeders or traders will take an animal from the wild, run them through an authorized breeding facility, and sell them on as though they were bred in captivity.

“As a rule, animals in captivity eat industrialized feed and this results in an isotopic ratio different from those born and raised in the wild,” he says.

Even in cases where a wild-caught animal has been held in captivity for a long time, eating the same food and sharing the same environment as animals born in the facility, it’s possible to see past the trick, Nardotto says. In mammals, for instance, the isotopic ratio in the teeth is established soon after birth or during the first years of life, and stays fixed.

In the case of birds, the situation is more complicated because the isotopic ratio of feathers correlates to the characteristics of the region where the animal was when the feathers were formed. “This is why we must consider the renewal rates of the tissues used as samples in the investigation,” Nardotto says, referring to how frequently birds shed old feathers and grow new ones. “Once the renewal rates are known, we can infer the age of the tissue temporally, and spatially, we can also infer the geographic region where the animal could have originated,” Nardotto says.

The spectrometer used by the Amazonas Federal Police will help in investigations into the trafficking of Arrau turtles (Podocnemis expansa), yellow-spotted Amazon River turtles (Podocnemis unifilis), pirarucu fish (Arapaima gigas) and crocodiles, Saraiva says.

He says some authorized commercial breeders of these species place wild-caught animals among their captive-bred stock to pass them off as captive-bred too. “We will be able to tell what has been ‘warmed’ by the breeder, separating the wheat from the chaff,” Saraiva says.

New technology will help track the origin of Arrau turtles, one of the most trafficked species in northern Brazil. Image by Camila Ferrara.

An important tool for well-placed releases
Rafael Leite, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Brazil expert in animal trafficking, says the Amazonas Federal Police’s adoption of this cutting-edge technology is important. Based in Manaus, the state capital, Leite says all the different surveillance agencies working in the state should ideally have the infrastructure to carry out this type of testing, or at least have access to it. “What can’t happen is to invest public funds and let what was created turn into a white elephant that falls into disuse,” he says.

Saraiva says the Federal Police has enough resources to carry out tests on a large scale. In cases involving wildlife, results can be had within 48 hours. “The Federal Police is even open to working with other governmental agencies to optimize the use of the laboratory and its equipment as much as possible,” he says.

Camila Ferrara, WCS Brazil’s turtle specialist, says it’s important that analyses based on stable isotope testing at the police lab also try to identify the origins of seized animals. “This information allows for more precise releases, returning the animals to the locations where they were captured,” she says.

For this, it’s necessary to get samples of the environment from where the animals were taken; the isotopic ratio of the water, for example, can be compared to that of the animal. This means establishing a database with information about capture locations is vital.

Juliana Machado Ferreira, CEO of Freeland Brasil, an NGO focused on combating wildlife trafficking, says stable isotope analyses and DNA testing are the most effective means of investigating fraud among breeders and guaranteeing the return of animals to the regions from which they were taken.

“The most sensitive techniques for finding illegal activities and carrying out technically responsible releases are DNA paternity tests, DNA origin inference testing, and origin inference and differentiation of animals raised in captivity from those caught in the wild through stable isotope analysis,” she says. “These also help us identify locations exploited by traffickers for capture and may help direct resources to combat the crime.”

Ferreira, who has a doctorate in genetics, says the legalized wildlife trade serves as a gateway for the illegal trade. She says it also burdens government agencies with the duty of carrying out inspections to distinguish the legal from the illegal. “Tracking technology today isn’t foolproof and there are many common frauds,” she says.

For Saraiva, the police officer, the lab has become something of a legacy. On April 20, he was removed from his post after issuing a criminal report to the Supreme Federal Court against several top government officials. In his report, he accused Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, environmental protection agency (IBAMA) head Eduardo Bim, and Telmário Mota, a senator, of interfering in a police investigation into Brazil’s biggest ever bust of tropical hardwood trafficking, in the neighboring state of Pará.

Saraiva’s removal from office was widely seen as politically motivated. And over the course of two weeks in late May and early June, Salles became the subject of two investigations — one by the Federal Police, the other by the court — into the very allegations leveled by Saraiva.

Salles’s alleged interference took the form of statements he issued in support of the alleged traffickers. Following a visit to the site of the seized logs, he claimed on social media that he had personally checked the origin of the wood and concluded that it wasn’t illegal in origin — exactly the sort of claim that Saraiva’s lab was set up to debunk.

Stable isotope analysis carried out at the Amazonas Federal Police’s lab will help combat the trafficking of wild animals by identifying their real origins and aid in their return to their habitats. Image courtesy of the Amazonas Federal Police.

Banner image of Arrau turtles seized in April in the state of Amazonas, courtesy of the Amazonas Department of Public Safety.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on May 6, 2021.

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