Life on front line with DNA detectives who are elephants’ last hope against poachers

May 31, 2019 | News

By Rhian Lubin and Rowan Griffiths, The Mirror

Poachers kill around 20,000 African elephants a year and there was a surge of 9,000% in rhino poaching in South Africa between 2007 and 2014

The elephant has been shot and is slumped on its knees, ears still intact but a gaping hole where its face was after poachers hacked it away with a chainsaw to remove its ivory.

The remains of two more elephants were found nearby, blood still pouring from where they had been blasted.

And the majestic animals were killed in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park – where they should be free to roam safely.

A wildlife investigator on a routine patrol stumbled across the harrowing sight, which is sadly all too familiar to him.

“On a daily basis, we are losing prestigious God-given wildlife to poachers,” says the officer who took the upsetting images.

“The park loses wildlife species nearly every day because of poaching. They want the ivory, leaving the body to waste away.

A poached elephant’s face hacked away with a chainsaw (Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

“Whenever I look at these images, I feel so sad. I love and value wildlife. I’ve been doing conservation work for 28 years.”

He remains anonymous to protect himself and his family, like many wildlife wardens and investigators.

Figures this week show elephant poaching is down to 4% from 10% – but experts warn their numbers are falling.

Many wardens risk their lives by going undercover to snare poachers but there is often not enough evidence to nail them.

So teams from the UK are now training investigators in wildlife forensics to help boost convictions.

The Mirror’s Rhian Lubin in Zambia (Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

We joined TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, Traffic and their partners at the Netherlands Forensic Institute to see how they are helping.

“Tackling the illegal wildlife trade is an immediate need. We’re losing biodiversity on a timescale shorter than climate change,” says Dr Rob Ogden, programme director at TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and head of conservation genetics at Edinburgh University.

He is leading the course on the park’s outskirts and adds: “Wildlife forensics is delivering the evidence to prosecute criminals but it must be available more widely and used more effectively.”

Wildlife investigators involved in a crime scene forensic training exercise (Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

In two weeks, 24 senior investigators from the Departments of National Parks and Wildlife in Zambia and Malawi, plus lab staff from the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust in Zimbabwe, learn how to take and preserve evidence.

Dr Ogden, 43, says: “The forensics we do is different to traditional human forensics. Usually, with human crime, we know crime has been committed because somebody’s reported it, or somebody’s dead. We try to reconstruct what happened.

Charles Mabethi, 39, a special prosecutor on poaching cases in Malawi, pictured with the Mirror’s Rhian Lubin(Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

“In wildlife forensics, you often know who’s involved as you’ll intercept somebody carrying something or someone selling something they shouldn’t be. But you need to prove whether a crime has been committed. So we use the analysis of wildlife evidence.

“We use scientific analysis because we can’t always identify things visually. To prove a crime has been committed, we need evidence to suggest whether it was a protected species or not.”

During the course, funded by People’s Postcode Lottery, the European Commission and USAID, Dr Ogden and his team mock up crime scenes.

The investigators are taught how DNA can be obtained from almost any biological sample and it is hoped the training will help them link evidence found at poaching scenes and that collected when suspects are caught or trophies are discovered.

Dr Rob Ogden, 43, programme director at TRACE wildlife forensics network (Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

Dr Ogden says: “The sample types with the most DNA, blood and tissue, also degrade quickest, so they are not always useful. Samples such as ivory or bone are harder to analyse but store DNA for years. Samples are sent to the lab for genetic analysis, starting with DNA extraction.”

As they examine the fake crime scenes, one investigator tells me what he is up against. He says: “One night we heard a gunshot. It was total darkness and we couldn’t arrest them. They ran. At around 5am we found an elephant had died.

“Those guys had tried to take the tusks off, they didn’t manage to. But the elephant was dead. There was nothing we could have done. What was the point? The elephant died for nothing.”

The investigators are taught how DNA can be obtained from almost any biological sample (Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

Poachers kill around 20,000 African elephants a year and there was a surge of 9,000% in rhino poaching in South Africa between 2007 and 2014. The global illegal wildlife trade is worth an ­estimated £15billion annually.

This month, the presidents of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia called for an end to a 30-year ban on ivory sales imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

And this week Botswana – home to the world’s largest elephant population, at 130,000 – said it would lift its ban on elephant hunting. Charles Mabethi, 39, was a wildlife ranger for 10 years and is now a special prosecutor on game-related cases in Malawi. He once stepped in a gin trap during a patrol – a serrated metal animal trap hidden in long grass.

Botswana – home to the world’s largest elephant population, at 130,000 – said it would lift its ban on elephant hunting (Image: Rowan Griffiths \\ Daily Mirror)

He says: “Poachers use gin traps. It’s a slow death. You can’t detect they’re there. The pain was indescribable. But this is a special job.”

Mr Mabethi says despite stricter penalties on wildlife crime since 2017, prosecutors still struggle to get convictions. He says: “Poachers have caught on and because they are scared of the tough penalties, they lie and it becomes difficult to prove they committed a crime.

“If we catch someone with bush meat, say an antelope, they will just say it is goat.

“We have no way of proving they are lying. We don’t have the facilities, we have to send it to South Africa and that delays the case. By this point, they give bail and the poachers run away. It’s very frustrating. That is why this course is so vital. We hope it can be implemented in Malawi soon.”

Mr Mabethi says another problem is in many cases, communities will support the poacher rather than the wildlife rangers.

He says: “They’ll come to the rangers with guns, axes, pistols. We are trying to change attitudes. It’s an ongoing process.”

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