Wildlife Forensics Lab Uses Tech To Sniff, Identify Illegal Wood International timber trafficking is an estimated $100 billion business. A lab that usually focuses on endangered animal cases is using a sophisticated machine to identify contraband wood shipments.
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Wildlife Forensics Lab Uses Tech To Sniff, Identify Illegal Wood

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Wildlife Forensics Lab Uses Tech To Sniff, Identify Illegal Wood

Wildlife Forensics Lab Uses Tech To Sniff, Identify Illegal Wood

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

To solve crimes against people, police need a good forensics lab. It's the same for crimes against nature and southern Oregon is home to the world's only forensics lab dedicated solely to wildlife crime. With high-tech tools, the lab's shedding new light on illegal logging around the world. Jes Burns from Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: There's a small woodshop at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Ore., but there's no sawdust or power tools. This shop is more like an archive, holding samples of some of the rarest woods on the planet.

KEN GODDARD: African mahogany, Brazilian ebony, mahogany from the coastal south of Mexico. These woods have come from all over.

BURNS: Lab director Ken Goddard flips through wooden planks the size of cell phones. The samples lay neatly on dozens of shelves. They're used to help identify illegal shipments of rare woods protected by international treaty.

GODDARD: Basically, you would not continue investigation unless you are pretty sure you're dealing with endangered or threatened species.

BURNS: With shipments of processed wood, this can be challenging because the limbs, leaves and DNA-rich sapwood have been removed. Just a few steps down the hall from the woodshop, deputy lab director Ed Espinoza leads the center's new forensic work on timber.

ED ESPINOZA: If somebody had just called me out of the blue, first saying, can you identify wood with your mass spec, I would've said no, that's crazy.

BURNS: The mass spec here is a relatively new kind of mass spectrometer. This one is called DART-TOF - or DART for short. And yes, it doesn't look or sound like much. It's more like a humming laser printer with a propane cylinder attached. That humble exterior hides some powerful technology. A few years back, an investigator asked if the lab could identify the wood confiscated in an alleged illegal shipment of agarwood, a protected incense tree. It struck Espinoza that he may be able to use the DART to identify the aromatic wood, which is used to make perfume.

ESPINOZA: Originally, we had no idea if it was going to pan out or not. But I knew if it had an odor - this instrument is kind of like a massive nose, almost.

BURNS: Espinoza shaved off a small sliver of the wood. With tweezers, he fed a sample into the DART. It needed just seconds to whiff the compounds and identify agarwood's unique chemical signature.

ESPINOZA: It didn't occur to me until after the fact that I could apply it to other types of wood.

BURNS: Espinoza and his team began collecting baseline samples of protected trees from around the world. These are the ones now stored in the lab's woodshop. In April, the Wildlife Forensics Lab became the first and only facility internationally certified to tell law enforcement that one sample is, say, legally traded Amazonian rosewood, versus contraband Brazilian rosewood. Shelley Gardner is the illegal logging program coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. She says the new DART technology gives law enforcement a better chance to stop illegally harvested wood from becoming someone's guitar or a new dining room set.

SHELLEY GARDNER: With that knowledge, I think their interests increase knowing that they can, if they are investigating a case, send a sample to a laboratory.

BURNS: OK, so tree cases aren't as exciting or appealing as chasing tiger or ivory traffickers, but international timber tracking is a huge global business. Interpol estimates it's worth up to $100 billion a year. And lab director Ken Goddard says there are broader conservation goals at play.

GODDARD: I think these wood cases are far more important than just the wood. I mean, trees can be re-grown. They are replaceable. That may not be true for the species that lived in that forest.

BURNS: That's why disrupting illegal logging can save more than just a tree. It can also protect the homes of mammals, birds and insects. For NPR News, I'm Jes Burns.

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