At the International Mail Facility at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, an inspector for this US Fish and Wildlife Service opens a box that’s been flagged as suspicious, reaches inside and pulls out a zebra skin rug.
An interesting find, perhaps, but nothing compared to some of what he and his colleagues see here. How about a big box filled with millipedes and scorpions and spiders?
“It was one of those ‘Holy cow’ moments,” says supervisor Naimah Aziz. One of the weirdest things she’s ever seen here.
Aziz says some of those creatures may have been protected species.
But when he spreads the rug out on the floor, the inspector quickly determines that today’s find is not contraband. The telltale pattern of the stripes shows that it was a common Burchell’s zebra, rather than a protected species, such as the Hartmann’s zebra.
For trickier ID questions though, the inspectors often pack up suspicious samples of animals or plant material and ship them across the country to a facility in the hills of southern Oregon — the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Forensics Lab.
It’s basically a CSI unit for wildlife crime. And it’s the only one in the world.
The lab’s deputy director, Ed Espinoza, says most folks have no idea what goes on at the lab.
“Most people believe that we are protecting deer and fish,” Espinoza says. But he says the lab now takes on cases that can originate thousands of miles away. “Major types of crime,” he says. “International trade, very high value rhino horn, ivory, endangered wood” and the like.
The lab is chock full of reference samples of endangered animals and plants from around the world — though officials are quick to point out no animals were killed to build the collection. But what really sets it apart from other such facilities are its high-security vaults and high-tech equipment.
“Valuable things” go into the lab’s evidence control area, says director Ken Goddard. That includes some of the 74 elephant tusks seized in an attempt to smuggle ivory from Africa to China.
“[The] animals were probably shot from the air,” Goddard says as he pulls one of the tusks off a shelf in the vault. “We can see the impact marks of the bullets, in a downward direction.”
You don’t need a high tech lab to figure that out. But here’s what you do need the lab for: trying to figure out where these tusks came from, and who might’ve been responsible.
Goddard says after shooting the elephants, the poachers buried the tusks, to hide them. That left some soil residue. And that’s what the lab went to work on.
“We used trace evidence techniques, getting at the soil that was inside the tusks, and isolating the pollen, the insect parts, and all of the other minerals into different groups,” Goddard says. “It really was a process of elimination. If one of the types of pollen is weeping willow (and) there is not weeping willow there, you can exclude that area. So we started at the planet and worked our way down to a relatively narrow area across three countries.”
To do this kind of sophisticated analysis the scientists here use some of the latest CSI techniques and tools, like a Direct Analysis Real Time spectrometer.
The spectrometer blows a stream of 800-degree helium at whatever material is being analyzed. It sounds like a mini jet engine.
Espinoza says the spectrometer can quickly identify many substances that might otherwise be impossible to trace, like a sample of tropical hardwood.
Something like that “has no morphological features,” Espinoza says. “It doesn’t have a leaf. So in many cases this is the only way currently, of getting identification in some of these samples.”
The machine comes in handy in situations like a 2011 case when the Fish and Wildlife Service challenged Gibson Guitar for importing illegal ebony and rosewood from India and Madagascar.
To help make their cases, the lab keeps a library of 25,000 samples of DNA in what looks like a row of refrigerators. The temperature are kept at at -70 degrees Celsius, or roughly -100 Fahrenheit.
“Which is seriously cold” Goddard says “But that is going to keep the samples usable for probably 50, 60, 70 years.”
It was DNA that catalyzed the lab in the first place.
Back in the 1980s, an Oregon resident was surprised to learn that the Fish & Wildlife Service couldn’t analyze DNA. He began lobbying the state’s US senators, Republicans Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield, to build a lab. They secured the funding, and the facility opened in 1989.
Since then, its mission has expanded to include supporting big, international wildlife crime investigations.
Goddard says other countries have more modest labs, but with a $40 million price tag for construction and instrumentation and a roughly $4.5 million annual budget, few other countries have even considered building something on the scale of this lab in Oregon.
"We’re trying to be the crime lab for 172 countries that signed the CITES treaty,” referring to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They’re also the crime lab for the wildlife working group for INTERPOL, which Goddard says includes some 70-some senior wildlife investigators from 50 countries.
Along with its work here in Ashland, the lab’s experts conduct trainings all over the world, to help wildlife agents like the inspectors at JFK identify illicit animal parts. Goddard says it all adds up to a lot of work.
And sometimes, he says, “it’s not doable. But we try. We are their laboratory, and we are trying to make a difference.”
And in many cases they are making a difference. In one recent operation, work at the lab helped bring down an international criminal network that smuggled dozens of horns from critically endangered rhinos.