Pangolin, Alamy Stock

Fighting Crime in the Wild

With pangolin populations on the brink of rapid decline, our criminology researchers are using technology adapted from human crime fighting to save them 


First published in issue 3 of SOLVE magazine, 2021



Lifting fingerprints is one of the mainstays of crime scene investigations and this proven crime-solving technique may be key to the survival of a popular – for all the wrong reasons – mammal, the pangolin.

Researchers and students at the University of Portsmouth have developed a modified process for lifting fingerprints from the scales of rescued or killed pangolins, greatly increasing the chances of wildlife authorities arresting and convicting perpetrators.

Pangolins are the only known mammals to be covered in scales, and are often called ‘the scaly anteater’ because of their appearance and diet. When they feel threatened, pangolins curl into a ball and use their scales for protection. However, while they may appear to have a tough armour, they are vulnerable to human predation. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world, poached and illegally traded for their meat and scales. The African Wildlife Foundation estimates 2.7 million pangolins are poached every year. Their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are ground and used in traditional medicines and ‘luxury’ folk remedies.

As a result of human callousness or ignorance, these solitary, nocturnal creatures are today in danger of disappearing from Earth altogether. All eight pangolin species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, with three (the Sunda pangolin, the Chinese pangolin and the Philippine pangolin) listed as critically endangered.

In 2016 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species imposed, with the support of 180 countries, a trade ban for all pangolin species, in an attempt to protect them from extinction. Despite this, the trafficking and illegal trade continues.

The plight of pangolins, and other vulnerable animals, caught the eye of the University after it introduced to its Criminology and Criminal Justice course a module called ‘Wildlife Crime: Threats and Response’.

Dr Nick Pamment, Principal Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice, says the module was “a bit of a trailblazer”, teaching subjects such as green criminology, wildlife crime law, policing wildlife crime, policy investigation and, most importantly for pangolins, forensic evidence associated with wildlife crime.

The module brought together experts from around the University to establish an International Wildlife Crime cross-discipline group, with the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The module also gathered a faithful following from the student body. Dr Pamment believes it captured the imagination of students because of what he calls “the David Attenborough effect”. Students were being exposed, online and in the media, to the detrimental effects of climate change and human environmental impact, and its dire consequences for certain species.

Pangolin, Shutterstock

Researchers are adapting fingerprinting techniques to stop pangolins from ending up behind bars. (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Adapting forensic technology

Dr Paul Smith, Reader in Crime Science, Principal Lecturer and Director of the Forensic Innovation Centre and the Institute of Criminal Justice Study Lead on Innovation, says the team identified a need to develop forensic methods and practical solutions that could be easily understood and utilised to assist wildlife crime investigators in Africa and Asia.

To delve into a much-needed forensic approach to help pangolins, Dr Smith and colleague Jac Reed, Lecturer in Criminology and Forensic Studies at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, tried to legally obtain some pangolin scales. Ms Reed says this proved challenging.

It took 18 months of discussions with Border Force, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other parties before the team obtained some scales for analysis and investigation. They ran tests on the scales using a gel technology, which Ms Reed says she and Dr Smith had used on an almost everyday basis in their former roles as crime scene investigators.

“It’s a very simple, low-tack adhesive gel that you gently press onto an item and when you remove it you should be left with some kind of imprint,” she says.

Dr Smith describes the first time they lifted fingerprints from the pangolin scales as “a eureka moment”.

“The process is cheap, easy to use, very deployable, and you can use a mobile phone camera to capture the mark in the right conditions. The image can then be sent anywhere you need,” he says. “Also, the gel is not just picking up fingerprints – it’s picking up DNA, traces and pollens that might be on the scales as well.”

One of the biggest assets of the gel is its simplicity, which means investigators in remote locations are able to collect fingerprints.

Ease and speed are vital, given the dangers some wildlife rangers face. They need to be able to get in and out of a crime scene quickly, Dr Pamment says, as often they are targeted by poachers.

Ms Reed says this is just the beginning of the technology’s development and use. Some rangers will be capturing fingerprints in forests, others in ports, some at import/export facilities – so the testing kits need to be adaptable to different environments. Correct insulation, pictorial guides and tamper-evident bags all come into this, and even sourcing a synthetic, non-animal-based gel for Hindu cultures.

And as Dr Smith points out, capturing the fingerprints and trace materials is just the start of the investigative process: “You need the ability to capture the donor’s fingerprints and you also need a database and suitable infrastructure, but there’s still a lot of information and intelligence that can be gathered from lifting such initial evidence from seized pangolin scales.”

Dr Smith says the team is now seeking funds to undertake further in-field studies and to fully develop the kits for use by wildlife rangers.

Dr Pamment believes the team has only scratched the surface of what is possible in the fight to protect endangered species from human destruction.

“This is an established forensic method that’s being used in this one situation, but its application to wildlife crime more generally could be amazing,” he says. “It could be used, for example, on traps and snares, for a whole spectrum of wildlife offences.”

At stake, say the researchers, is not just the future of threatened species but, by extension, the biological diversity that is crucial for all life on Earth.


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