Animal CSI: In this Australian lab, scientists are solving animal crimes


Liam Mannix, The Sydney Morning Herald

Date Published

See link for photos.

You’ve got to crack a few chicken eggs to bust a drug smuggler.

That’s one of the things Dr Rebecca Johnson and Dr Greta Frankham have learned in five years of running Australia’s only accredited animal CSI lab at the Australian Museum in Sydney.

They’ve consulted on dozens of cases, analysing blood stains and fish fillets, feathers and powders.

And they’ve analysed eggs. Lots of eggs. 

Many are from exotic species that are illegal to ship; the lab is able to do a DNA test to prove the eggs came from an endangered animal. “But we get a lot of chicken eggs that have been mailed through the post,” says Dr Frankham.

“And we’re like . . . why would you do that?,” says Dr Johnson.

“We wonder if that’s people testing out drug-smuggling routes,” says Dr Frankham.

“Or,” adds Dr Johnson after a second’s thought, “I guess it could be for very fancy chickens.”

Jokes aside, it may well be drug smuggling.

Drug smugglers take a keen interest in illegal wildlife smuggling. It’s low-risk, high-reward, and a good way to test out new routes, Dr Frankham says. If you can successfully smuggle animals along a certain route, you can probably safely smuggle cocaine.

And if you’re caught smuggling animals, you often face only a slap-on-the-wrist punishment; small fines and a few months in jail.

Illegal trade in wildlife is a massive industry, worth about $28 billion a year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

This money often funds other illegal activities like human trafficking, drug manufacturing and money laundering. “Wildlife is high value, low punishment,” says Dr Frankham.

Luke Bond, a former Interpol officer who now works as a wildlife crime consultant, says nearly all wildlife smuggling is connected with organised crime (although he and Australian Border Force both say they are unaware of criminals “testing” routes using eggs or wildlife).

“To be involved in trafficking wildlife products illegally, you have to be organised. You have to know where to source it, to have trusted networks, to have ways to move the product.

“To catch them, you need to be quite sophisticated – because the criminals are.”

Dr Johnson and Dr Frankham have become closely acquainted with the criminal underworld since the former launched the laboratory in 2004. It’s an odd fit for a pair of museum scientists more used to writing scientific journals than court papers (they continue to do research; the pair recently helped sequence the koala genome for the first time, with Dr Johnson the lead author on that paper).

But they had to launch the lab, they say, because there is no one else in Australia who can do what they can. And without them, many animal crimes would go unprosecuted.

“If you were alleged to have been involved in a crime and the police sent your DNA sample to a lab, they know exactly what to look for,” says Dr Johnson.

“They have a huge database of human DNA to compare it to … And we deal with every other species, which has none of that set-up.”

Their lab focuses mainly on DNA extraction and profiling. They are experts at extracting DNA from even the tiniest drop of blood or most-desiccated piece of ivory, and then telling courts, with near 100 per cent certainty, which animal it came from.

The need for a formally accredited lab became obvious to Dr Johnson in the wake of a 2003 case in Sydney, when a car deliberately drove through a flock of cockatoos as families fed them, killing 25 of the birds. 

After tip-offs from the public, police found the car, but the driver denied involvement. Police found blood on the tyres – but had no way of proving what the blood was from. The case was circumstantial.

At a loss, police approached the Australian Museum. Could they find out where this blood came from?

Australian Museum holds samples from some 20,000 species. Using sophisticated DNA analysis, Dr Johnson was able to show the blood undoubtedly came from the cockatoos. The offender received 400 hours of community service. 

Fresh from that success, and seeing a need, the Museum launched the wildlife forensics lab. Just like police labs, the lab now has official accreditation from the National Association of Testing Authorities, giving courts confidence in its findings (it would take until 2013 for formal accreditation to be achieved).

“A lot of people in the realm of wildlife crime don’t realise you can do DNA on animals the way you can on humans. Once the enforcement people tell the court ‘we have this lab that can provide this evidence’, they are kind of like ‘oh, well, yeah, I did do that’,” says Dr Frankham, who joined the lab in 2012.

The lab has been involved in around 60 cases since its formation, including the case of ex-NRL player Martin Kennedy, who pleaded guilty to smuggling animals including stingrays, sugar gliders, pythons and fish, many of which died while being shipped. They are also regularly involved in animal cruelty cases. 

“It’s a hidden use”, says Dr Johnson, “of how awesome museums are.”