By Sarah Morrison
An Edinburgh geneticist uses forensics to track animals killed in the world’s fourth biggest illegal trade – and their killers.
You just have to take one glance inside Dr Rob Ogden’s freezer to know it is no ordinary one. DNA samples from a rhino, a Vietnamese tiger, a golden eagle, an antelope and a wild cat are all stored inside.
Then there is the block of ivory on his shelf, the size of a door stop, which belonged to an African elephant long before it was brought to his two-room laboratory located at the back of Edinburgh zoo.
The 38-year-old geneticist might not look like someone associated with fighting global wildlife crime – now estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars each year and ranked as the fourth biggest illegal trade after narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting – but among those in the know, he is recognised as a pioneer.
The illegal ivory trade activity worldwide has more than doubled since 2007, and estimates suggest that about 100 African elephants a day are being killed for their ivory.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2011 had the highest levels of poaching in 16 years. About 22,000 were illegally killed last year, and it has been warned that 20 per cent of Africa’s elephants could be killed in the next decade if poaching continues at the current rate.
We know about military-style enforcement on the ground. Rangers are equipped with night-vision goggles and guns. Poachers opt for AK-47s or machetes.
Rob Ogden, of Edinburgh Zoo, examines ivory artefacts
But far away from the killing fields, Dr Ogden is busy as the programme director for Trace Wildlife Forensic Network, promoting forensic science as a way of conserving biodiversity and investigating the growing crime. For years, and almost in isolation, he worked with law enforcement agents in this country, using DNA forensics to link an item – a piece of elephant ivory, for example – back to its species. In the case of elephants, African or Asian.
Thanks to genetic mapping, this DNA can then be traced to a region, enabling enforcers to understand where killings are taking place. Experts can even analyse levels of radioactive carbon, known as carbon-14, to determine when animals lived or died. More....