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A new specialised academy in South Africa plans to arm conservationists from around the world with the forensic skills needed to gather crime scene evidence that can be used to prosecute poachers and traffickers.
Launched in mid-May at its recently built premises in the Buffelsfontein Nature Reserve, near Cape Town, the Wildlife Forensic Academy (WFA) has created a variety of realistic wildlife and plant crime scenes to train its students.
The academy is a state-of-the-art facility that will provide forensic knowledge, awareness and practical training to game rangers and people who study wildlife forensics, veterinary medicine, conservation and ecology, according to its founders.
Forensic science is important in law-enforcement efforts to catch the perpetrators of human crimes, and a single cell can now be used to form a DNA profile.
However, Dutch forensic scientist Andro Vos, one of the WFA’s founders, says its potential in animal-related crimes, which usually have no witnesses, remains largely untapped even though it could be a game-changer in solving them.
Vos, a former programme director at the Netherlands Forensic Institute, says he first conceived of the idea to establish the academy about a decade ago, following a forensics lecture he gave in South Africa. During the talk, Vos said he was asked whether forensic science could be used to solve wildlife crime.
He recalled that although he didn’t know the answer at the time, “the idea never left my mind”. After learning about the illicit wildlife trade and how it has driven thousands of species towards extinction, Vos began working on the idea of a forensic academy that could help bring those responsible to justice.
Despite ongoing efforts by successive governments and conservation bodies to keep it in check, the poaching and trafficking of wild animals and plants by criminal syndicates remains rampant in South Africa. For instance, a total of 451 rhinos were poached there between January and December 2021, according to government statistics – a 13 per cent increase on the number of rhinos killed a year earlier.
Although rhino poachers have been successfully prosecuted in recent years, the same cannot be said for those involved in the illegal killing and smuggling of many other animals and plants.
Last year, the government’s portfolio committee on environment, forestry and fisheries was told there had been about 72 seizures of ivory in the form of products, tusks and pieces between 2015 and 2019 but no one had been convicted for elephant poaching during that time. Indeed, the committee heard that much of South Africa’s wildlife was under threat in some way from poaching or trafficking, but so too was the country’s rare plant species, especially its ancient succulents in the Western and Northern Cape provinces.
In February this year, South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) spokesperson Nontsikelelo Mpulo told the Daily Maverick, an online newspaper, that 1.5 million succulent plants had been illegally removed over the past three years with a cumulative age of 44,000 years.
According to WFA director and cofounder Dr Greg Simpson, the academy’s courses teach people how to preserve crime scenes and gather and analyse different types of evidence, such as human and non-human traces as well as chemical, physical and digital traces.
The courses, which are one, two and four weeks in duration, also show recipients how the evidence is analysed in forensic laboratories and then used in court to secure convictions.
“We aim to teach our students by taking them through the story of a wildlife crime and its prosecution from start to finish,” explains Simpson, who is a vet.
“First, they are shown how to isolate a crime scene, then how to look for evidence and process it in a way that ensures its integrity.”
Aside from housing crime scenes related to the poaching of lions, rhinos, giraffes, marine animals, birds and plants, the WFA premises also has a forensic laboratory and a small court room, and an elevated classroom that overlooks the whole operation.
“Presenting in court can be make-or-break for the prosecution of a wildlife crime. Here we have a real prosecutor who takes the students through courtroom scenarios, so they know what to expect if they are required to give evidence in a case,” Simpson says.
In addition, the facility has a large shipping container in which items such as pangolin scales are hidden, and a small house that represents the home of a trafficking middle-man who is hiding abalones prior to dispatch overseas.
The academy was officially launched on May 13th, and the first students, who are from Staffordshire University in the UK, will arrive in August. The international two-week and four-week courses cost €2,500 and €5,000 respectively, which also covers food, accommodation and field trips. Vos says the fees generated from the overseas students will “allow us to train local rangers and vets for a much lower fee”. A fund is also being established to sponsor frontline conservationists in low-to-middle income countries to attend the academy.
Vos noted that acquiring an in-depth knowledge of forensics took years of study. However, their courses were designed to give people a basic understanding of the science and to “motivate and inspire” people to treat wildlife crime scenes properly.