Fingerprinting pangolin scales to fight wildlife crime
Applying traditional forensics to wildlife crimes could help tackle poaching and trafficking for some of the world’s most endangered species. Dr Nick Pamment, Jac Reed and Dr Paul Smith talk to John Worsey in the latest episode of Life Solved.
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Thinking like a criminal
Dr Nick Pamment’s interest in poachers began in his Highlands childhood, where he witnessed some of the circumstances that drive people to illegally poach wildlife. Today, it is often the underprivileged or vulnerable individuals that are driven to commit poaching and smuggling of endangered species as part of a multimillion-pound global trade.
With a background in Criminology, Nick was resolved to make a difference and founded the University’s leading Wildlife Crime module eight years ago.
We started teaching things like green criminology, the types of wildlife, crime, law, policing, wildlife crime policy investigation, and forensic evidence associated with wildlife crime.
Understanding the complex and overlapping disciplines needed in Wildlife Crime threat and response required a team of experts. That’s where Dr Paul Smith and Jac Reed added their expertise in forensics to establish a research group that continues to grow.
One of the most recent breakthroughs from the team has been in the development of a special ‘gel’, commonly seen in forensics fingerprinting practices. Collaborating with colleagues at Border Force, the National Wildlife Crime Unit and ZSL London Zoo, the team looked at how perpetrator fingerprints might be left on samples of trafficked material.
Pangolins are also known as Scaly Anteaters. Their ground-up scales are used in traditional medicines and their meat is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. This has encouraged cruel and damaging practices, which have left all 8 species endangered. The team tested their gel on a sample of pangolin scales:
That was the Eureka moment. The gel is not just picking up a fingerprint, it’s picking up the DNA. It’s picking up traces and pollens that might be on the scales as well.
Not only does this kind of data help prosecute offenders, but it can also help build up a picture of the networks and trade routes through which trafficking is being organised. Pollen can indicate the provenance of a poached item when cross-referenced with the natural habitats of those plants.
Beginning a journey
A pilot study has already shown promising results from the field. The gel technology is easy for rangers to use and crucially can allow evidence to be gathered quickly. Rangers are often in dangerous circumstances when intervening in high-value trafficking and need to get away from danger zones as soon as possible.
It’s hoped that with future funding, the database and infrastructure needed to implement this kind of crime-fighting on a global scale can be developed. But that’s all down to outward-looking collaborations and information-sharing between leaders across many disciplines.
Anna Rose: Thanks for downloading Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this podcast, we hear from researchers on how their work is deepening our knowledge in subjects like medicine, democracy, sustainability and technology to shape our lives in the future. In many cases, the work being done aims to answer some of the world's biggest problems. For our last episode of the series, John Worsey has been exploring how breakthroughs here can help to challenge wildlife crime. But first, what is wildlife crime? There are international laws that manage the trade in plants and animals so that environments, populations and ecosystems can be protected and sustained. But the poaching of rare or endangered flora and fauna can make for big business, with collectors prepared to pay huge sums of money for some items to be smuggled across borders. Others use plants or animals in food or medicine and are prepared to pay a high price to get their hands on the material. Such poaching can have a devastating impact upon populations and in the case of animals, can also be cruel and inhumane. What's more, the trade in illegal poaching can drive some of the poorest and more at-risk communities to take risks that may endanger their lives. Enforcing the laws on the front line are wildlife crime investigators and rangers who also take their lives in their hands trying to trace, track and halt crimes before the damage is done.
Nick Pamment: Given the dangers that the wildlife crime rangers are facing, rangers, particularly in Africa, they need resources that can be easily used. So this could be used so, so quickly where rangers can get in and out of a crime scene really, really quickly. And that, to me, is one of the main positive aspects of using something this simple.
Jac Reed: The speed is important, John because the Rangers are targeted by poachers. So they need to be in and out fairly quickly.
Anna Rose: This time on Life Solved, John Worsey finds out how University of Portsmouth research is helping in the fight to protect pangolins from extinction and sharing tools that can be used to increase safety in the field. Pangolins are sometimes described as scaly anteaters. They look like reptiles on account of the protective scales on their bodies and tails but are actually mammals. There are eight species of pangolin which are spread across Africa and Asia, and all of them are at risk of extinction. Why? Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world and their scales are ground up and used in some traditional medicines. It's a criminal offence to trade in pangolins, and yet they're one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. Nick Pamment is a principal lecturer in criminology and criminal justice.
Nick Pamment: I've always been interested in wildlife crime. I spent a lot of time growing up in the Outer Hebrides. I became quite interested in wildlife crime from watching poachers behave and act in remote parts of Scotland, really. I think the first thing to say about pangolins is they're extremely easy to poach. You know, they're relatively slow-moving. When pangolins feel threatened, they'll curl up into a ball. So they are very easy to take from the wild. The scales ground down, are used in traditional Chinese medicine and are said to cure all manner of problems. Their meat is also used. It's an awful, awful situation the pangolin finds itself in. Pangolins are incredibly difficult to rear in zoos. To mount any sort of rescue or growth in their numbers is very difficult once they're gone from the wild.
Anna Rose: Joining neck is Jac Reed, a lecturer in criminology and forensic studies at the Institute of Justice Studies.
Jac Reed: Last I heard, Nick, there was only one in one in captivity in Leipzig Zoo.
John Worsey: Is trading them fully illegal, or is it one of those things where it's legal in some places not so much others?
Nick Pamment: They're heavily protected under what's called CITES, which is the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species.
Anna Rose: Nick explained how the wildlife crime module at Portsmouth was established ahead of its time.
Nick Pamment: So about eight years ago now, the university established the first wildlife crime module. It was a bit of a trailblazer eight years ago, wasn't it? We started teaching a module called Wildlife Crime Threats and Response, we started teaching things like green criminology, types of wildlife, crime, wildlife crime law, policing wildlife crime, policy investigation, and most importantly for this forensic evidence associated with wildlife crime. Just establishing a module and bringing experts from around the university and the department together, we established a research group really that has gone from strength to strength. Quickly we had around 80 students on the module and that has been consistent for a few years now. So it just gives you an idea of the level of student interest and passion for this area. And I think that's really reflected in the staff as well now.
Jac Reed: It's given us lots of, personally, lots of opportunities to travel or go to far-flung places like Africa and like India. My passion comes from seeing what's going on out there internationally and learning so much from the guys on the ground, really, that are at the coalface of this.
Paul Smith: is a reader in crime science at the University of Portsmouth. He explains how he made the jump from a background in forensics to Wildlife.
Paul Smith:: 2013 it was. Nick was in the office just down the corridor from me, and he sort of comes bounding down with the energy Nick always has and says, I'm going to start a wildlife crime module, Smithy, and this is what it's going to do. And forensics is a massive part of this and blah, blah, blah. Nick brought me into early lectures on the module and so on and so forth. And then I could see the massive potential forensic has in the wildlife crime area. I think it's superbly developed in terms of animal forensics, in terms of the stuff people like Tracey is doing, and the Americans and the Fish and Wildlife authorities over there, they do some fantastic stuff on forensic DNA and other things. But there's very little associative forensics, the use of fingerprints, the use of trace materials, the use of DNA and so on and so forth.
Anna Rose: The move to apply existing forensic techniques in tackling wildlife crimes is a growing area for research. The team set up the International Wildlife Crime cross-discipline working group to discuss the biggest problems that exist in wildlife crime. But how does all that help the pangolins?
John Worsey: Did you kind of land on pangolin's then, because that was the area of the world that you were looking at? I mean, I know there's all sorts of horrendous statistics about them, you know, if you're going to start with animal trafficking, they're certainly as of 2019, I know they were the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world. One poached every five minutes. I don't know if these statistics are still valid for 2019 African Wildlife Foundation, isn't it. 2.7 Million pangolins poached in a year.
Nick Pamment: We had no choice but to bring all the experts together, the multidisciplinary experts, because of the nature of wildlife crime. I mean, we're dealing with remote locations. You know, a blanket approach just would not do in this situation. You need this socio-technical approach where you're drawing upon criminology, law, forensics, the guys actually on the ground. From my perspective, there is no other way of doing it than adopting this collaborative approach.
Paul Smith:: What Nick brought together through that module was experts, from the ZSL and from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, eventually from WCS International and what we had around the table was a real cross-discipline. Areas of law, criminology with Nick, forensics with myself and Jac, and then bringing in the external partners in, principally in ZSL and a couple of other international people as well, which I think really opened up discussions about where I guess the demand was, where the requirements were, what was needed in the fields.
Anna Rose: The team were united in selecting pangolins as an urgent case study for research. First, colleagues at ZSL London Zoo helped Paul and Jac understand the animal and its keratin scales. The next challenge was to explore how existing forensic techniques could be used to trace criminals from the pangolin scales.
Jac Reed: That's the kind of Eureka moment, wasn't it, Paul? We were sat down in ZSL, we'd gone down there the day, and they have this lovely stuffed pangolin. And it was-- they plonked it on the middle of the table for us and I looked at Smithy and Smithy looked at me and then I look back at Smithy and, you know, StarCrossed lovers over the pangolin we both looked at and went, we could get fingerprints from that!
John Worsey: So are these-- are these literally the same sort of things that would be used if your house gets burgled? This is what the officer would come and stick on you door handles and things to. It's exactly the same?
Paul Smith:: Yeah, John, yeah. It's one of many methods, obviously. Commonly used for footwear. So when somebody steps on your sill and leaves an imprint that you perhaps can't probably see, if you're going to play the jail to it and lift it off, fairly good at lifting fingermarks as well.
Anna Rose: But there was one more obstacle before they could explore that Eureka hypothesis. For that, they needed the raw materials. The team looked for scale's seized from poachers and traffickers by border forces.
Jac Reed: To get pangolin scales is incredibly difficult. The UK isn't a trade route for these, so it was a very involved and protracted way to get them. I mean, it meant about 18 months, 18 months of talking to border force, getting border force to then broker that with their European partners. They had to involve Defra, all sorts of people, all sorts of hurdles, all sorts of obstacles, and a regular Saturday morning chat with friends from Border Force and eventually sort of trying to make that network work. And eventually, we got a small bag of pangolin scales, about 50 or 60 or so of these lovely little scales. You know, they don't look like much. They look like, probably somebody's very, very old toenail, actually. When they arrived, it was just a question of, okay, what are we going to do with these? We did a little test. We did a little test area on them using this method of technology, which has been around for a long, long, long time. And Paul and I would have used this on a weekly, if not daily basis in our former roles as crime scene investigators. And it's just very, very simple, low tack, adhesive gel that you then press onto an item gently and, you know, and then when you remove that, you should be left with some kind of an imprint and also the traces. So positive it had a fingermark on it. Attach the gel to it, lifted the gel back off and, you know, hey presto, put it in the machine and bang, there it was, a lovely big, fat fingerprint. There was lots of rich detail. And the funny thing is that Paul and I are really good depositors' of fingermarks – I think it's because of all the cheese we eat, personally don't about you Paul, is it? But, um. But yeah. So it was then from that we were able to do a small pilot study.
Paul Smith:: The Eureka moment of course was using the gel and lifting the mark off the pangolin scales, which was great. But looking at the broader remit, it's cheap, it's very easy to use, it's very deployable. You can use your mobile phone or camera to capture the mark in the right conditions, it can be sent anywhere you want. Also, the gel is not just picking up fingerprints, it's picking up the DNA, traces and pollens that might be on the scales as well. Bear in mind the transit routes and the scales it's, I mean, I won't go into it, but it's horrendous the way they pull the scales off and the way they treat the animals. And a lot of the time, yes, the scales might be ground down, but often they're in large sacks, got tons of scales in large bags. This method, you wouldn't want to print all those scales, but it could be selectively used on a sample to see what traces there are and what you could also do through that sort of material, and we have been working and will continue working again after the covid finally settles with the palynologist to look at extracting pollen from the gel, then we can start to see the origins of where the scales have come from and we start to get more intelligence about the geo location, where the origin from some problems about that. Through a very simple and affordable method, it's sparked off a lot of other studies.
Anna Rose: Looking for fingerprints of perpetrators, as well as gathering information on where a trafficked item might have come from, can offer valuable intelligence on how poaching operations work. But just as important is making technology usable in the field. Rangers and investigators often have to work quickly to avoid danger to their own lives. But when working in remote areas and travelling, it's not practical to have the latest high tech, expensive equipment to hand. That's just one of the learnings the team gathered from a valuable consultation process.
Paul Smith:: The ability to capture those finger marks or any other trace materials is to start the process. But obviously, you need the infrastructures, you need the database. You need the ability to capture the donor's fingerprints and so on and so forth. And that's one aspect of the problem. But because there's so many dimensions to this, there's still a lot of intelligence and information we can gain on a summary amount from these pangolin scales. So I think that's where the beauty of this comes.
John Worsey: Yes, it's just that it's the start and you can build on it as a foundation. Are you having any reports back from India or is it a bit early to say about how well it's working in the field?
Paul Smith:: We've had one, one or two come back from our colleagues who have used it.
Jac Reed: One of the interesting things is in terms of heat and storage, what fits one size doesn't fit all. You know, you've got some ranges that are out in the forest and then you've got other people that are in the ports, you know, so that they can store them effectively it's coming in through imports or exports or some-- that kind of environment. So you need to be able to adapt that. And I think when we looked at the kits, the small kits that we devised, it was about getting the correct insulation, about pictorial guides, you know, for ease of use, so you can understand what you're doing with them, getting those gels into the tamper-evident bags. In some instances, they could be thrown in the bottom of a vehicle and left there for, I don't know, 10 days while they're out.
Paul Smith:: Yeah, that was that was really interesting. So I went to India, we sort of travelled around the country doing workshops in different regions with different wildlife crime officers. And that was a really important piece of work because the value of the gel could be seen. But it's bovine, of course, in the Hindu religion and with some of the cultures out there, it was a consideration that we and we've done some work sourcing a synthetic gel that is none animal-based. And I got a sample of some and it sort of worked and we needed to develop it. I think that was a wake up call, when you think, oh god, yeah, of course. If we could generate a synthetic gel, that would be far better and certainly for the environment and certainly for us as well in terms of the work and the contact with those using the gel. And I think those workshops were very productive in terms of us saying, yes, we could see it's usable, but there was some difficulties with the way they were using their mobile phones, getting the phone square and so on, so forth. So, again, we've got another student coming in who started looking at developing frames and the types of settings on the different types of phones, so looking at iPhones and Samsung, goodness knows what else. I think she used Google Pixel and all these different phones to look at what was the optimal setting for the gel in different areas. And that all came from that work with the specialist in India. Now in the UK and across the world, really, you can get a scanner to scan this and there's a fifty thousand pounds worth of scanner to do it. Or you can get them for about ten thousand pounds. But to be honest, if you're in the field and if you're in the middle of the savannah or jungle or wherever, you know, your mobile phone can work and does work.
Jac Reed: You get a lot of forensic methods that you might need some specialist training to really understand how to do it more effectively. But it's so simple. It's a really simple process. Without exception, everybody that we've we've shown out in these various countries and in India have within one or two attempts managed to get marks from trying out on various artefacts.
Anna Rose: Now that some exciting results are starting to play out in the field and data is coming back, John asked the team what other benefits this gel fingerprinting approach might bring to fighting wildlife crimes in the future.
Nick Pamment: What's really exciting for me about the use of these gelatine lifters is this is just one example where it can be used. I mean, for me, this is the tip of the iceberg. It could be used on traps, snares, a whole spectrum of wildlife offences. And for me, the exciting thing is just to get that knowledge outside.
Jac Reed: We're very keen to be working with practitioners in the field to derive methods that work for them in the context of their environment. And that's clearly going to be different depending on where they are in the world, depending on their infrastructure. It's so multifactorial.
Paul Smith:: And this has all been done with no funding at all. A little bit of help from faculty at the university, but no funding. So to go to the next level and say we're going to build on our partnerships to get sustainable funding and help us to forward the work. However, what has moved it forward is the amount of students who have stepped up to do work with partners at Master's level or undergrad level and even the office of PhDs.
Jac Reed: There are other areas of wildlife crime that we are looking at.
Anna Rose: Some students in the department have worked with the National Wildlife Crime Unit to survey wildlife crime officers in the U.K. and gathered a pioneering level of detail. Another student is looking at the persecution of birds of prey, another entirely new angle that looks set to raise the agenda of our relationships and responsibilities to wildlife in the UK and further afield. You can find out more about the University of Portsmouth Wildlife Crime module and more of our research at port.ac.uk/research. As environments around the world feel the strain of climate change, who knows what else we might be able to find in a future where we can halt the impact of carbon emissions and unsustainable human practices. In this series of life solved, we've asked questions about our future following the pandemic from our homes to workplaces, shopping centres, natural spaces and beyond. What's been really evident is how we as individuals, governments and nations are making decisions now that will have a vast impact on life in decades and centuries to come. And it's vital that those decisions are based upon excellent information and knowledge, the kind of which all our researchers are working and collaborating to provide here at the University of Portsmouth. We can't wait to share more with you next time. We'll be back soon. But in the meantime, you can follow this podcast on your favourite app and share it on social media using the hashtag Life Solved. There are dozens of episodes for you to explore in our podcast feed, so why not dive into the back catalogue and find out how our work is changing your world today?