Can fingerprint and human trace DNA evidence recovered from wildlife specimens help identify wildlife criminals?

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  • $25
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  • 1%
    funded
  • 27
    days left

About This Project

In 1898 the first-ever conviction based on fingerprint evidence took place in Bengal, India. Since then forensic evidence has become a vital component of criminal investigations. Yet, despite wildlife crime being one of the most globally lucrative crimes, the application of human-focused forensics to solving it is underutilised. This study hopes to change that by establishing simple and inexpensive methods of fingermark and human DNA retrieval from wildlife specimens.

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What is the context of this research?

The common factor in both ‘human-on human’ crimes and ‘human-on-wildlife’ crimes is that the transgressor is human. Therefore a simple yet overlooked strategy to support wildlife crime investigations is to utilise the vast array of human-specific identification methods already available.

The reason why this simple approach is overlooked can be attributed to the fact labs either work on humans or on animals. In the few instances where there is cross-pollination, research has shown that human fingerprints can be effectively lifted from elephant ivory and pangolin scales.

Despite media excitement around the potential for this type of research, the number of animals it has been trialed on and validated for is minuscule and warrants more work.

What is the significance of this project?

The world is seeing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity linked to human activity. One example of this is the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), the fourth largest international illegal trade, reported to be worth upwards of $20 billion. However IWT is just one type of wildlife crime that exists; persecution, abuse and illegal hunting or sport are all putting wildlife species at risk.

Historically in the context of wildlife crimes conviction rates have been low and the punishments enacted minor. Should this project successfully identify best practice approaches to human evidence recovery from wildlife specimens it will be providing avenues for potentially higher conviction rates through more robust cases built around fingermark and DNA evidence.

What are the goals of the project?

By asking volunteers to deposit fingerprints (FP) & touch DNA onto wildlife specimens, we will test the following enhancement & recovery methods:

Fingerprints
Powders (standard, fluorescent, supranano), alternative light sources & gelatin lifters. We will quality grade enhanced FPs to quantify the success of each method.

DNA
Swabs (cotton, flocked, foam), tape & gelatin lifts. Recovered DNA will be extracted, quantified & where possible STR profiles generated to demonstrate method viability.

Based on our results & with the help of UK law enforcement, we will produce a toolkit describing the best methods of FP & DNA recovery for specimen types including, ivory, skulls, eggs, turtle shells, reptile & elephant skin, & 'big cat' furs.

Budget

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The collection and analysis of forensic evidence must be done using sterile and validated equipment. These items will ensure this project replicates methods used in real criminal investigations by forensic practitioners.

Fingermark recovery tools:
Fingermark retrieval methods are dictated by the porosity of the substrate type being worked on. This study intends to focus on methods that are easy to use in field settings and cheap to reproduce. We will be testing several different powders and mediums such as gelatin lifters.

DNA extraction kits & recovery tools:
Wildlife specimens will be handled by volunteers then swabbed for trace DNA, testing out different swabs for their efficacy. Extraction, amplification and STR profiling will then take place to see which swabbing method is best suited to which wildlife specimens.

Forensic Photography:
Macro photography and dedicated lighting are required to pick up fingerprint minutiae.

Endorsed by

This is a fantastic project, using tried and tested human forensic techniques in a wildlife crime setting. Something rarely done and underexplored. The results will contribute to tackling the illegal wildlife trade. Alex has successfully completed an MSc project in this area so I believe she is the perfect person to drive this research forward.

Flag iconProject Timeline

This project is in support of PhD with an intended 3-year run time. Each year will be dedicated to a specific work package. Year one will be dedicated to establishing best methods for fingermark retrieval from wildlife specimens, year two will be dedicated to establishing best methods for trace DNA retrieval and year three will focus on building a toolkit based on the outcomes of year one and two research.

Sep 13, 2021

Project Launched

Feb 01, 2022

Establish the best methods for fingermark recovery from different wildlife specimens

Feb 01, 2023

Establish the best methods for trace human DNA retrieval from different wildlife specimens

Feb 01, 2024

Create a wildlife forensic toolkit focused on human evidence recovery

Meet the Team

Alexandra Thomas
Alexandra Thomas

Affiliates

Liverpool John Moores University, Zoological Society of London Institute of Zoology
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Alexandra Thomas

For the last eight years, I have facilitated the education of aspiring wildlife professionals, both as an educator and as a project manager.

During this time I have been exposed to various types of human-wildlife conflict across the world and spoken to those both affected by it and those trying to address it.

It is through my professional career I first encountered the true extent of wildlife crime, including illegal trade, persecution and poaching, both domestically and internationally. Of the many challenges facing wildlife, this felt like a problem that could be practically addressed.

I have long believed wildlife conservation requires a significant focus on humans. This may manifest through raising the voices and practices of indigenous groups who have lived harmoniously with our natural world for generations or through attempting long-term behaviour change in the global north to reduce the impact western lifestyles have on biodiversity.

For me, I am focusing on human perpetrators of wildlife crimes and attempting to identify those responsible for them. Where individuals cannot be identified, or where their involvement is due to extenuating circumstances, I hope my work can contribute to intelligence gathering to help counteract large scale criminal activity in this area.

I am aiming to achieve this through my PhD and through the amazing continued support of law enforcement officials and experts in the field of wildlife forensics. Collaboration is and always will be key in wildlife conservation and I believe platforms like this open up an amazing opportunity for the general public to be involved in research from the very beginning.

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