DNA-based forensic science is at the forefront of solving wildlife crimes and is currently undergoing a transformation.

Wildlife forensic science is the science of identifying wildlife involved in crimes including the illegal poaching, possession or trafficking of protected and endangered animals and plants.

Wildlife Genomics
Dr Rebecca Johnson & Dr Greta Frankham viewing objects commonly found in the wildlife trade – Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics. Image: Ian Bird
© Australian Museum

Illegal wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry that threatens the survival of many species around the world, and with the increasing profile of wildlife forensic science there is movement to streamline protocols and practices so they are more aligned to those used in human forensic science.

Unlike human forensic science, which deals with a single species (humans!), wildlife forensic science is complicated in that it deals with thousands of species (think parrots, orchids, rosewood, reptiles, mammals, corals and snails!). Simply figuring out what species is involved in an alleged crime can be quite a challenge, but is required before offenders can be prosecuted, as it must be established which legislation they have breeched. In these circumstances an accurate and reliable identification is needed.

In many wildlife forensics cases, DNA analysis is the primary tool used for identifying species. DNA techniques can also be used to tell what region or population the animal came from, and whether the animal was wild-caught or captive-bred (via pedigree analysis). This information can be vital for not only prosecuting criminals, but also gaining a better understanding of the illegal wildlife trade.

Rebecca Johnson working on an Eagle

Dr Rebecca Johnson working on a White-bellied Sea-Eagle

Image: Sue Lindsay
© Australian Museum

As wildlife forensic science strives to reach a professional standard on par with human forensic science, scientific practises and procedures need to be standardised so there can be confidence that they are reproducible, reliable and robust.

The future for wildlife forensic science looks bright. There are already a skilled group of analysts conducting this work worldwide and providing their expertise to the legal system. To date there have been some large penalties handed down in court, one notable recent one being "Operation Crash" in the United States.

Wildlife forensic science becoming increasingly professionalized is a positive move and ensures that evidence presented in wildlife forensic science keeps pace with the expectations of the legal system. After all, in prosecuting wildlife crime, what we really want is improved biodiversity conservation outcomes.

Lizzy Myers
Guest blogger & Marine research assistant, Curtin University

Dr Rebecca Johnson
Head - Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics

More information:
Johnson, R.N., Wilson-Wilde, L., & Linacre, A. (2014). Current and future directions of DNA in wildlife forensic science. Forensic Science International: Genetics 10, 1–11.

Our Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics recently received NATA accreditation (to International Standard 17025) to conduct wildlife forensic work in our facilities by trained staff. The centre is one of the few facilities in Australia conducting non-human forensic work at this level of accreditation.