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Experts are using forensic science to fight wildlife trafficking

In Africa, pangolins are equipped with a distinctive armor of overlapping scales, made of keratin – the same material as human fingernails – providing them with protection against predators such as lions, hyenas, snakes, and wild dogs. This natural defense mechanism allows them to curl into a ball, shielding their soft underbellies. 

However, these very scales make pangolins a target for illegal wildlife traffickers, driving a lucrative and unlawful trade that poses a significant threat to wildlife and human communities globally.

Wildlife forensics laboratory 

To address the pressing issue of wildlife trafficking, the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech has been granted $2.6 million by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

This funding is allocated for the establishment of a cutting-edge wildlife forensics laboratory in Kasane, Botswana, which will operate in partnership with the Botswana government. 

Professor Kathleen Alexander of Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation will lead this initiative, significantly enhancing the institution’s research capabilities in Botswana. 

Collaborative effort

The lab aims to facilitate swift DNA evidence processing to aid the investigation and prosecution of wildlife trafficking cases in the region, and it will also support the launch of Botswana’s multiagency wildlife crime training and response units, dubbed the Elite Team.

The project is a collaborative effort between Virginia Tech, the Republic of Botswana, and the Center for African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL), a nongovernmental organization founded by Alexander in 2001. Additionally, the Wildlife Investigation Training Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization, will oversee the educational aspects of the initiative.

Increasing global threat

Alexander, the project’s principal investigator, emphasized the increasing global threat of wildlife trafficking, highlighting its implications not only for conservation but also for national and global security. 

“Wildlife trafficking is escalating across the globe and is increasingly seen as a threat to conservation and local livelihoods. But more significantly, we’re seeing that wildlife trafficking is part of an integrated system that allows criminal syndicates to operate and grow. Tackling wildlife crime is not just about conservation related impacts, it’s about national and global security,” she said.

Combating wildlife crime

The establishment of the wildlife forensic center builds upon Virginia Tech’s ongoing collaboration with the Botswana government. This partnership was underscored by the visits of Botswana President Eric Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi to Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands to Botswana, marking significant milestones in the relationship between the two entities.

President Masisi acknowledged Botswana’s leadership in conservation but pointed out the need to bridge gaps in the country’s capacity to combat wildlife crime. He believes the forensic center will serve as a crucial resource in protecting Botswana’s natural heritage.

Broader implications 

Illegal wildlife trade, encompassing products ranging from pangolin scales to elephant ivory, poses one of the largest threats to global biodiversity and public health, facilitating zoonotic disease spread and funding criminal networks. Botswana, with its rich biodiversity including the world’s largest elephant population, is strategically positioned in the fight against this illicit trade.

Alexander’s work in Botswana takes a One Health approach, addressing the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health. The new forensic center represents a significant step forward in combating wildlife trafficking and its broader implications for security and conservation in southern Africa.

Innovative technologies 

The forensic center will employ innovative technologies to trace the origins of trafficked animal products and develop strategies to combat wildlife smuggling. This initiative underscores a collective effort to tackle wildlife trafficking within and beyond Botswana’s borders, leveraging advanced DNA sequencing technologies to analyze complex samples.

The collaboration between Virginia Tech and the Botswana government exemplifies a model for how academic institutions and governments can unite to address global challenges, reflecting Virginia Tech’s commitment to service and providing a blueprint for future partnerships aimed at securing peace, democracy, and equity worldwide.

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