Crime Scene Investigation Africa: Monitoring the illegal ivory trade with fingerprints

  • Unpolished ivory, rubbed with fingerprint powder, can provide insight into criminal networks

  • Fingerprints taken from the ivory can be added to databases, with the hopes of identifying and capturing poachers

  • Fingerprint databases in African wildlife poaching locations are currently sub-par and will need expansion to directly lead to the identification of kingpins

Experts from various sectors now contribute to conservation science; even if you are a forensic scientist, you could play an important role in conservation and anti-poaching efforts. And bring your crime-fighting tools with you.  Two fingerprint powders, which have been around for years on the commercial market, are now proving to be potentially useful in the conservation realm, too.

Unpolished elephant tusks are not as smooth as they appear; each has a unique and coarse structure with miniscule grooves across the surface that can actually capture human fingerprints. This is good news for the rangers and governments trying to identify and prosecute poachers.

These findings were brought to light by a research team from King’s College London, University College London and the Specialist Forensic Services of the Metropolitan Police Service of London (MPS). Their report highlights two reduced-scale fingerprint powders — SupraNano Black Magnetic and Jet Black Magnetic — that can allegedly be used to recover fresh or, if you’re lucky, week-old fingerprints on ivory. When dusted on ivory, these ultra-fine powders stick in and among the fibrous surface where fingerprints are present and capture the details of the fingerprint’s ridges.

Comparison of a fresh fingerprint on ivory enhanced with reduced-scale powder versus a 28-day old fingerprint on ivory. Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service of London.
Comparison of a fresh fingerprint on ivory enhanced with reduced-scale powder versus a 28-day old fingerprint on ivory. Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service of London.

Data challenges

Poachers themselves aren’t necessarily the drivers of illegal wildlife killing; they usually are part of an intricate network of criminal gangs. Poaching often leads to the presence of criminal gangs in local communities, causing uneasiness and disorder. These organized crime syndicates kill around 30,000 elephants per year, in order to sell or trade the ivory for weapons to continue their cycle of violence and power. The sophisticated criminal networks are run by a small number of kingpins or bosses, who charge their gangs with killing elephants and other high-value wildlife.

To succeed in protecting wildlife and nearby human communities, national and international enforcement and technology must match the international criminal networks that run rampant. Currently, however, rangers and law enforcement agencies face major challenges with implementing the fingerprint technique. There are hardly any fingerprint databases that could identify the poachers, much less the kingpins, in elephant range countries. As the paper’s lead author, forensic scientist Leon Barron, stated to WildTech, numerous European Union countries have fingerprint databases, to which fingerprints from detained ivory could be processed and added. Investigators require such reference databases to be able to match fingerprints found on animal parts to those in the database.

Example of fingerprints enhanced on a full tusk. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service of London.
Example of fingerprints enhanced on a full tusk. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service of London.

The idea of incorporating forensic science and monitoring of the criminal networks is not new. The international organization TRACE (Tools and Resources for Applied Conservation and Enforcement) also coordinates the use of forensic science techniques in wildlife crime investigations and strives to “establish an international network of wildlife forensic practitioners and other wildlife crime stakeholders, offering a central contact point for information…and to enable capacity building in regions where wildlife forensic techniques are currently limited”.  C4ADS, the Center for Advanced Defense Systems, traces complex criminal and wildlife crime networks globally to expose wildlife and arms trafficking bottlenecks and support conservation efforts.

 Sumatran elephant shows off large tusks. Photo Credit: Rhett Butler/Mongabay.com
Sumatran elephant shows off large tusks. Photo Credit: Rhett Butler/Mongabay.com

London’s MPS has produced a field kit (cost: approximately US$150) for rangers to use if they come upon poached elephant tusks. The kit contains both specialized items, such as the reduced-scale powder, magnifying glass and lifting tape, and basic components, including pens and scissors. According to Barron, “…the best results for powdering were always achieved by photographing the mark in situ before lifting…to prevent any loss of powder and definition during the lifting process”. Thus, rangers should always carry a light source, in the event they need to process poached ivory at night.

Elephants aren’t the only animals in need of criminal investigators: tigers and rhinos are also under severe poaching stress. The fingerprint techniques have also been tested — and in some instances, have proven to work better — on rhino horn, tiger claws and even hippo and sperm whale teeth.

Sperm whale tooth. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Lord Mountbatten
Sperm whale tooth. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Lord Mountbatten

Of course, stopping the poachers before they kill an animal is still preferable to forensics.

The fingerprint identification process is still in its infancy and poses numerous questions for wildlife law  enforcement. Do the countries where rangers are trying to stop ivory poaching have the fingerprint databases needed to identify wildlife criminals? Is it worth it for national parks to spend money on these field kits if there is still a slim chance of their contributing to catching a poacher? How about law authorities at air or shipping ports? Even if a poacher is caught, they’d be hard pressed to learn who the poaching kingpin is.

Dr. Barron imparted some words of wisdom for those aspiring to become forensic scientists with a keen interest in wildlife crime:

“It is important to challenge, test and improve the basic science where possible. The smallest or simplest of changes can sometimes make the biggest improvements. The integration of new forensic science tools into routine practice evolves slowly, to allow all the validation checks to be performed first before implementation. By thinking outside the box or by applying methods from other areas of science, forensic practice will evolve steadily and even more quickly by feeding new ideas into this process chain.”

Let us know in the Forum if you agree – or comment about your own experience with wildlife crime research and testing.

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