Center for Environmental Forensic Science aims to disrupt illegal wildlife trade

Across the globe, endangered species are at risk of illegal poaching. African elephants are sought out for their ivory, rhinoceros for their singular horns, and armadillo-like pangolins for their protective, brittle scales. Add to that list valuable and environmentally sensitive trees illegally harvested throughout the world where entire ecosystems are being deforested and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that is devastating oceans. 

These illicit markets, estimated at US$1 trillion annually, cause enormous environmental impacts and have the potential to unleash new, deadly pathogens.

Academia fights crime

Now, a group of University of Washington professors is leading an effort to combat these crimes. The new University of Washington (UW)’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science is a unique interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector that aims to disrupt and dismantle transnational organized environmental crimes.

“This important project epitomizes how UW scientists are innovating across disciplines to contribute to the public good,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “Working to protect precious and endangered species and stop transnational criminals from trafficking in illegal goods will help to preserve our natural world in service of all humanity, including future generations.”

The center was established last fall with state funding and will be led by co-executive directors Samuel Wasser, a UW professor in the Department of Biology, and John Hermanson, a UW research scientist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. It will replace and broaden the work of the UW Center for Conservation Biology.

The team will deepen existing relationships that span the globe, working closely with law enforcement to develop cutting-edge tools and data-driven analysis that help competent authorities pinpoint transnational organized criminals and bring them to justice.

“The combination of government and nongovernmental collaborators, including scientists and NGOs working on the ground, produces a highly experienced, complementary forum that draws upon long-standing histories working in source and transit countries and the associated trust that instills,” Wasser said. 

“This not only enables us to ask the right questions, but also provides unprecedented access to large seizures of environmental contraband, providing the raw material for follow-up investigation needed to answer those questions.”

Wasser pioneered genetic methods to identify elephant poaching hotspots across Africa, track the number and connectivity of major ivory traffickers operating in Africa and throughout the world, and uncover strategies that transnational organized crime syndicates use to acquire and move their contraband. One recent example of how the group collaborates with law enforcement was the November arrest near Seattle of two major ivory traffickers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hermanson has devised similar approaches to track illegally harvested timber. He led the development of the XyloTron, a machine vision device that scans timber and can quickly and accurately identify species. Hermanson also co-developed Arbor Harbor, with the support of U.S. Forest Service International Programs, which is a trees-to-trade reference system that helps authorities identify illicit timber shipments by aggregating and vetting information on taxonomy, geographic origin, conservation and trade regulations.

“These transnational organized environmental crimes are getting more sophisticated, and competent authorities need cutting-edge tools to keep up. Thus, one focus of the center is to develop such technology-for-good tools,” Hermanson said.

Research leads to prosecution of criminals

The scientists’ combined work has led to prosecutions of major transnational criminal organizations and built relationships with a wide array of law enforcement, NGOs and other groups seeking to halt the illegal wildlife and timber trades and stem its impacts. Some of these criminal enterprises also are involved in narcotics and human trafficking schemes, and other illegal activity.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is being addressed by the center through members from the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and others. IUU fishing jeopardizes fish stocks and associated ecosystems and has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.

Given the extent to which past pandemics, including COVID-19, have been triggered by unregulated wildlife consumption, the UW Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness and members of the Brotman Baty Institute Advanced Technology Lab will monitor wildlife products for emerging zoonotic diseases.

“The center’s program is a force multiplier, ad almost infinitum,” said Washington state Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, who in 2021 helped secure $1 million in funding for the center from the state legislature. “Personally, I have a really hard time watching our magnificent wildlife — elephants, rhinoceros, old-growth trees — disappearing before our eyes.”

A new approach is necessary to combine multiple state-of-the-art tools aimed at uncovering connections between illegal wildlife shipments and to link multiple seizures to the transnational criminal organizations exporting them, Wasser said.

“This [hypothesis-driven approach] empowers law enforcement agencies to see the whole picture rather than focusing on single-crime prosecution, which rarely addresses the root of the problem,” Wasser said.

Complementing port security

The center’s work is vital to port security, where thousands of huge shipping containers from around the world are both imported and exported, creating opportunities for both the trafficking and interdiction of illegal goods. Around 70% of all goods are sent by sea in shipping containers.

“These transnational criminal organizations are greatly capitalizing on this, because once they get their contraband in a container and through customs at the port of export, it gets concealed in the legal trade, making the contraband far more difficult and expensive to trace,” Wasser said.

Like other major ports, Seattle has struggled during the COVID pandemic with a backlog of cargo. The U.S. Coast Guard attempts to target suspicious containers, but customs officials are looking for the proverbial “needle in the haystack” when it comes to contraband, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman. The new center will help authorities expedite and pinpoint which containers need to be opened.

A team of dogs, part of the center’s long-running Conservation Canines project, is being trained to rapidly screen numerous containers for contraband without having to open them. Air drawn from shipping container vents is passed through odor collection pads, which are then presented to detection dogs in a nearby location. 

Officials plan to pilot this method at the Port of Seattle in collaboration with Homeland Security Investigations and the Northwest Seaport Alliance. Felleman said it made sense to tap the expertise at the UW, and it also helps that the university — a respected, independent institution — will bring together a broad coalition of partners.

“The challenge with any bureaucracy, no less multiple bureaucracies, is having the left and right hand talking to each other,” Felleman said. “Having them all housed in one place at the UW is a huge step in the right direction and could have multiplicative benefits.”

Photo credit: iStock/SPmemory

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