California Is Getting Tough on Wildlife Crime

In a new forensics lab, state agents test samples of blood, saliva, tusks, and feathers in a quest to stem the illegal trade in exotic animal parts.

A wildlife official confiscates a smuggled leopard skin in Bombay, India.


Steven L. Raymer/National Geographic

The phone rings at the Wildlife Trafficking Unit on a typical day at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) offices in Sacramento. The caller offers a tip: A local antiques dealer has what appear to be ivory artifacts for sale in a back room.

The response is swift. Lieutenant Steven Stiehr heads to the scene, identifies the ivory, and seizes the carvings. He brings the evidence to the new wildlife forensics lab and hands it over to a technician, who slides pieces into a high-tech scanner called the VSC 8000. Its light filters and cameras draw out the subtle lines and markings that determine the ivory’s age and the species of its owner—that is, whether it came from a hippopotamus, mammoth, mastodon, walrus, warthog, whale, narwhal, or elephant.

But the analysis doesn’t stop there. The wildlife forensics specialists have developed a protocol to use samples of the trinkets’ DNA to trace the illegal ivory back to its origin—typically, an African elephant, 96 of which are killed every day for their tusks.

Although selling ivory of almost any kind is now illegal in California, the state is still home to the second-largest ivory market in the nation. It is also a hub for the illegal trade of a wide variety of exotic animal species. As part of an effort to step up enforcement and penalties for these crimes following passage of a 2016 law, the state recently beefed up its wildlife crime–fighting force, funding positions for Lieutenant Stiehr, four wardens, an attorney, administrative support, and a wildlife forensics specialist in the lab. The new agents have traveled up and down the state; seized ivory at art galleries, estate sales, and swap meets; and rolled out high-tech tools to reveal the identity of illegal wildlife products.

“We’re on the lookout for everything,” Stiehr says. “If there’s money to be made, it’s being trafficked.”

To hold criminals accountable, the investigative team and government prosecutors rely heavily on the evidence collected by officers in the field and dissected in the lab. In April, Stiehr’s group took part in a Los Angeles County case against a man who had violated the ivory ban. The officers shared intelligence and training with prosecutors in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office. One wildlife forensics specialist and two officers testified. Ultimately the jury convicted the defendant on two charges, and he was sentenced to 10 days in county jail, 3 years’ probation, and 30 days of community service. All of the ivory evidence was forfeited to the CDFW.

Stiehr is proud of his unit’s work but notes that “for every case we make, there are numerous cases that we don’t make.” Nevertheless, the unit has brought some real teeth to the department’s mission through its forensics tools.

Attorney Zak Smith, who directs NRDC’s Wildlife Trade Initiative, points out, “You can’t successfully prosecute crimes associated with specific endangered species unless you can actually prove the contraband is from that species. That’s why CDFW’s forensics work is so important.”

A CDFW wildlife forensic specialist analyzes physical and morphological features of a piece of ivory.
Credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Animals with ivory tusks aren’t the California crime lab’s only focus. Its scientists are developing protocols to analyze a variety of illegally traded critters for the Wildlife Trafficking Unit. For instance, they can now study zebra hide to first confirm that it isn’t fake, then examine its stripes and DNA to determine whether it belongs to an endangered Grevy’s zebra. The crime team is building a database that investigators potentially could mine for wildlife trafficking information in the future, Smith says. The wildlife forensics lab has tested samples of blood, saliva, and feathers from animals all over the world, including sharks, abalone, and bears, as well as native plants targeted for exotic trade.

By confirming the species and habitat of a poached animal, the lab could someday lead investigators straight to the source of the crime. That could help with a larger effort to identify where wildlife agencies should target their resources and interventions, both at home and abroad. “It may give us a better understanding of the larger criminal syndicate routes these materials travel through,” Smith says.

While the federal government squeezes conservation resources, Smith is encouraged to see that California is expanding its efforts to fight wildlife trade. “Californians are serious about conserving species, not just in California, but also understanding what their impact in the larger world is, given the size of the state’s economy,” he says.

That impact is big indeed. Consider the shark fin trade—a global wildlife crisis that is taking a toll on many shark species. Boats fishing for tuna, billfish, and other open-water species have increasingly targeted sharks in pursuit of their fins, which are highly prized to make shark fin soup, a luxury item popular in some Asian cuisines. Sometimes boats on the high seas haul up sharks, slice off their fins, and dump the animals back into the water. California has been a major importer of shark fins, and the state acknowledged its role in fueling the market when it adopted a fin trade ban in 2011. (NRDC worked to uphold the ban when it was challenged in court in 2016).

Recently harvested sharks’ fins dry in the sun in Hong Kong.
Credit: David Sutton/Alamy

Elizabeth Murdock, director of NRDC’s Pacific Ocean Initiative, has been a key advocate fighting for the maintenance of that ban—and for California’s continued leadership in halting the trade in shark fins and other illegal seafood products. “My hope is that the California state shark fin trade ban and the U.S. government’s new Seafood Import Monitoring Program can help to deter unsustainable fishing and halt illegal fishing,” she says. “We are already seeing some signs of California’s diminished role in the global shark fin trade, which is very positive. But there is still a lot more work to be done—from halting illegal imports and the illegal transit of shark fins across our borders to developing systems that will help wildlife officers determine whether the shark fins and other seafood products that show up at our borders were legally obtained.”

Now, as the CDFW’s growing teams and technology open new lines of communication to help monitor, detect, and enforce illegal activity beyond the state’s borders, Murdock believes that the impact of California’s policies will deepen. “California can play an important role, not only by addressing significant wildlife trade within the state, but also by establishing models for monitoring and enforcement that other states and nations can follow. And with CDFW’s help, we can continue to send the message to traffickers that illegal trade is not acceptable,” she says.

For his part, Smith is eager to see what contributions California can make to efforts to stop wildlife trafficking from the top. “While it is important to create these deterrents at the lower levels, they won’t ever be sufficient to squeeze out illegal trafficking rings, unless you go after the big, corrupt kingpins, who are buying off people in foreign countries to look the other way.”

It’s clear that Stiehr’s work at home in Sacramento has only just begun. The CDFW is weeks away from opening its genetics research lab, where scientists will develop advanced forensic analytical tools to build bigger wildlife crime cases with microscopic evidence.

The unit has sophisticated goals built on a simple mission: protecting the environment for future generations, not just of Californians, but of all creatures. “I believe that the creation of this wildlife trafficking team was a win for all of us—for the people of the state, the people in the United States, and in the world, where the wildlife trafficking knows no boundaries,” Stiehr says. “That’s a victory.”

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