CSI in the Wild: Crimes Against Nature
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When a murder takes place, chances are there will be a forensics lab involved in the investigation. When it's not a human but a protected animal that's killed, there's a special lab in southern Oregon that may pick up the case. Agents investigate anything from elephant poaching in Africa to bald eagle hunting here at home.
From member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, Ann Dornfeld reports.
ANN DORNFELD reporting:
In 2002, dead bull elk and mule deer were turning up around the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve in eastern Washington. The animals were all missing their heads or antlers. Hunting is banned on the reserve. Even if hunting was allowed, it's still illegal to take trophies and leave the meat to rot. Special Agent Steve Magone investigated the case for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.
Mr. STEVE MAGONE (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): I've worked about 30 years and by far this is the worst case of waste of game animals that I've seen. I mean, I love hunting myself. But generally, even if an animal is taken illegally, people don't just take the antlers. It's not ethical at all.
DORNFELD: Magone says a convicted felon had been seen driving through the nearby town of Goldendale with antlers in the back of his truck. His buddies had antlers, too. Magone suspected a poaching ring of at least ten people.
In order to win convictions, though, Magone had to prove the antlers seized from the suspects matched the carcasses at the reserve. So he packed his pickup with antlers, coolers full of meat and other evidence and drove ten hours south.
Mr. BRIAN HAMLIN (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): I would think that when those individuals were poaching those elk, they weren't thinking that there was a lab out there that could actually match those antlers back to the evidence that was being collected in the field.
DORNFELD: That's genetic analyst Brian Hamlin for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife forensics laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. Hamlin amplified DNA to match genetic material from the carcasses to traces of blood on the suspects' hunting knives. Ballistics experts matched bullets found in the elk and deer with guns found at the suspects' homes. And fingerprint analysts lifted prints from empty beer cans found at the scene. All ten defendants were convicted of the illegal take of wildlife and fined. Several served short jail terms. Again, Brian Hamlin.
Mr. HAMLIN: We can do a lot with very little evidence. That might surprise people.
DORNFELD: Just how much evidence investigators have differs widely from case to case. Clues have been as large as a mounted polar bear or as tiny as a single hair. And sometimes the clue can look for like a reject from a butcher's case.
Mr. VERLIN CROSS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): It's the latest trend.
DORNFELD: That's what lab investigator Verlin Cross sees with the growing illegal trade in bushmeat.
Mr. CROSS: Bushmeat can be just about anything that they can kill in Africa and jam on a stick and roast. And it comes in and most of the time it's charred meat that looks about half jerky and half meat.
DORNFELD: This unlabeled mystery meat has been showing up at U.S. ports, he says, bound for shadowy underworld restaurants where it's billed as endangered species such as mountain gorilla.
Mr. CROSS: We're asked to identify what that meat is. Well, that meat can be monkey, any sort of reptile, amphibian, any sort of animal.
DORNFELD: To help unravel these kinds of mysteries the lab maintains a huge collection of bones, hair, feathers, tissue and DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of species. If the confiscated meat matches samples from an endangered animal, the penalties can be severe.
Special Agent Magone says in the days before the wildlife forensics lab, convictions would have been all but impossible.
Mr. MAGONE: I remember having lots of bullets and blood and samples of all kinds with no place to send them to. So it's a big help.
DORNFELD: The lab is currently undergoing an expansion project that will double its capacity.
For NPR News, I'm Ann Dornfeld in Eugene, Oregon.