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Fingerprinting technology gives investigators an edge against pangolin traffickers

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  • Researchers in the U.K. have modified the gelatin lifters used in criminal forensic investigations so they can pick up clues from pangolin scales and other illegally traded wildlife body parts.
  • Wildlife guards in Kenya and Cameroon are using packs of the gelatin lifters in the field to gather evidence.
  • The researchers say this new technology allows wildlife conservation officials to collect this evidence more quickly in remote areas, which in turn helps to ensure their safety.

Wildlife crime investigators now have a new method that builds on the forensic techniques used to collect fingerprints and other identifying marks in helping them track down traffickers of pangolins and other wildlife.

“What we have done is to create a quick, easy and usable method for wildlife crime investigation in the field to help protect these critically endangered mammals,” Nicholas Pamment, head of the Wildlife Crime Unit at the University of Portsmouth, U.K., said in a statement. “It is another tool that we can use to combat the poaching and trafficking of wild animals.”

Eight species of pangolins, which look like armor-bearing anteaters, live in Africa and Asia, and the IUCN lists all of them as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Surging demand for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine, and their meat in Asia has ratcheted up the pressure on pangolins, making it the world’s most illegally traded wild mammal, according to the IUCN pangolin specialist group. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, made any trade of pangolins or their parts illegal in 2016.

A cache of seized pangolin scales and body parts. Image © Zoological Society of London.

To address this issue, Pamment and his colleagues at the University of Portsmouth, along with wildlife crime experts at the U.K. Border Force and the Zoological Society of London, a conservation NGO, wanted to figure out how to help wildlife law enforcement pursue traders of pangolins and their scales.

So the team adapted a forensic tool called a gelatin lifter to allow field investigators to gather clues from caches of pangolin scales quickly. Gelatin lifters are small sheets that have a bit of adhesive to pick up nearly invisible pieces of evidence left behind, such as a shoeprint or a fingerprint.

In tests, Pamment and his colleagues found that the fingerprints they obtained from pangolin scales had enough detail to potentially point authorities toward individuals who had handled the scales. What’s more, they designed field packs with 10 lifters and other tools that wildlife guards need to gather evidence in remote areas — when, for example, they might come across a stockpile of pangolin scales.

They’ve outfitted guards in Cameroon and Kenya with the packs, and Kenyan law enforcement are using similar technology to gather evidence when they come across a poached elephant or an illegal stash of ivory. The team plans to share its research at this year’s meeting of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

An example of a fingerprint found using the new technique. Image © Jac Reed/University of Portsmouth.

“What is fundamental to this method is its application, it is easy to use and employs low-level technology,” Jac Reed, a University of Portsmouth forensic technician, said in the statement. “This is so important for rangers in the field who need to be able to get good quality fingermarks very quickly to ensure their own safety.”

Until now, Pamment said, that wasn’t always possible. “While forensic science techniques are being used as part of the investigation process, there is a lack of research looking at ‘what works’ in the context, or within the limitations of the wildlife crime investigation and in the environments where the investigations take place,” he said. “This is a significant breakthrough for wildlife crime investigation.”

Banner image of a Sunda pangolin © Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

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