Author speaks on using science to combat poaching

Thursday, April 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Use of scientific techniques to investigate and resolve wildlife crimes could help to reduce poaching and trafficking of endangered species, said an environmental expert and conservation consultant Wednesday night.

Laurel Neme wrote a book last year titled "Animal Investigators" that highlighted how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is using technology to solve crime against wildlife. She spoke at the Life Sciences Center at MU about how wildlife poaching and trafficking has become a complex, global trade that can only be curbed using equally sophisticated methods.

“Although the wildlife forensic laboratory cannot eliminate poaching and trafficking, it can help to minimize it,” Neme said.

Experts estimate that revenue from global trafficking in wildlife trophies has hit $20 billion per year, an estimate that surpasses illegal weapons traders’ annual earnings, but falls short of the amount that global drug pushers make in a year.

Wildlife traffickers have developed sophisticated methods of ferrying their cargo, making it harder for law enforcement officers to track them.

The difference in legal systems defining wildlife crime also makes it harder to crack down on traffickers who have learned how to exploit legal loopholes in their target countries.

“It becomes very difficult to trace where a processed ivory souvenir statue originated from, but forensic laboratory technology can and has been used to resolve such cases,” said Neme in an earlier interview.

Participants in the conference, however, said forensic poachers were likely to invent new ways of staying ahead of law enforcers.

“Traffickers will always be there as long as there is demand for their goods,” said Nicholas March, a student at MU taking wildlife studies.

Michael De Stefano, a hotel and restaurants management major, said building more forensic laboratories could help to resolve wildlife crimes faster.

The Ashland, Ore., laboratory is the only specialist wildlife crime forensic investigative center in the world.

It focuses on cases from the U.S. but also assists in investigations from Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species member countries.

As a young girl, Neme was always fascinated by wildlife and remembers the gripping National Geographic images of Jane Goodall’s close encounters with chimpanzees in an African jungle.

She also recalls the late 1980s when incidents of elephant poaching reached alarming levels and the then-Kenyan President Daniel Moi torched millions of dollars worth of elephant tusks to attract world attention to the dangers that poachers posed to dwindling wildlife species in Africa.

Her passion for wildlife has turned her into a full-time environmental consultant and author on wildlife issues, sharing her expertise through writing.

“Richard Leaky became my personal hero,” said Neme, referring to the Kenya Wildlife Services director who spearheaded security operations to rid the east African country of poachers who marauded its world famous national parks. “He put his life on the line to protect endangered animals.”

Almost two decades after the torching of elephant tusks was made famous by international media, Neme went to Kenya and sought out Leaky to write a foreword to her book, "Animal Investigators."

She previously consulted on natural resource management and policy issues for the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and non-governmental organizations and spoke passionately about her shift into authorship.

She said an “encouraging” uptake of her first book, which was published last year, has given her the push to start working on a second title, a non-fiction narrative book on wildlife trade and forensics.

Although Neme said she does not have a record of sales of the book, which had an initial print of 8,000 copies, she added the publisher is preparing to roll out a second batch.

“The book has appealed to a wide cross-section of readers including policy makers, university and school kids,” Neme said.

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