Wildlife forensics & the UN: fighting illegal fishing

The United Nations (UN) is looking to adopt a forensic science approach to assist in managing the problem of illegal fishing. At a UN Food and Agriculture Organization workshop in Rome they discussed what techniques could assist and how: UN turns to forensic science to help combat illegal fishing. “DNA analysis can unveil the species of a suspect white fillet, for example, and chemical tests on fish ear bones reveal absorbed nutrients to pinpoint the region where they were caught, major weapons in combating unscrupulous fishers and traders who game the system to prevent over-fishing and avoid international restrictions aimed as preserving fish stocks, as well as taxes and other limits.”

I always say that there is no end to the types of casework to which a forensic science approach can be applied and this is a perfect example of this in action. Particularly given that one participant at the UN meeting described how “a group convicted of illegally trading abalone confessed that they learned techniques for destroying evidence by watching CSI: Miami. It’s that CSI effect again, only this time it’s gone really bad.

Catching a wolf serial killer

Wildlife forensics is an expanding area of forensic science – there is even a separate session in the upcoming Australia & New Zealand Forensic Science Society 20th International Symposium in Sydney this September.
Seeing as this subject is gaining wider acceptance, I thought I’d share the story of the recent arrest of an Italian man for being a serial wolf killer. Wolves have been a protected species in Europe for some time and have been protected in Italy since the 1970s. Unfortunately, a number of wolves were found killed and sometimes mutilated (the muzzle being missing from at least one) in the Genoa region. A man was eventually arrested and from him was seized a necklace of teeth. The teeth were sent to the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) where wildlife specialists extracted DNA from them.
As with any case like this, unless there is a database against which to compare results. the results can themselves be more or less meaningless. However, because of the European focus on collating information there is in fact a DNA database for wolves and other large predators that is used to assist with population monitoring. The DNA is gathered from many sources including cadavers and faecal matter (not forgetting other possible sources such as fur, skin, bones, etc., etc.).
Six separate wolves were identified from the necklace using the DNA database. Obviously not all killers wear their victims teeth – at least not usually of the human variety – but keeping mementos of hunting is not at all unusual and it makes perfect sense to use trophy items to attempt to link a possible offender with an offence. As this is totally outside my area of knowledge I have no idea how much wildlife DNA is being monitored or tracked throughout New Zealand and Australia but I assume it would be a very handy tool for Customs and MAF – perhaps I’ll be able to report more after I’ve attended the conference (particularly if someone wants to pay the AU$2500+ that it’s going to cost…).