Modern detective work to bring offenders to justice - Veterinary Practice
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Modern detective work to bring offenders to justice

Hercule Poirot would certainly have spotted the clue and even Inspector Clouseau might have stood a chance. But it was a British detective, Andy McWilliam, who had the job of examining the evidence to find out whether or not a crime had been committed.

That crime was the taking of eggs from the nest of a wild bird, an offence since the Protection of Birds Act was passed in 1954. The owner of the egg collection that McWilliam was investigating insisted that the eggs were legally taken before the Second World War as indicated by the information on the accompanying index cards.

There was, however, one detail that the sharp-eyed policeman noticed and could point out both to the egg collector and the presiding magistrate when the case came to court. Yes, the index cards were genuinely old but the lettering on both the cards and the corresponding eggs had been written with a felt tip pen, technology that wasn’t invented until the 1960s.

More challenging

McWilliam and his colleagues in the National Wildlife Crime Unit will have many more challenging cases to investigate and he explained how he would go about them at a conference at the University of Chester in late June. The meeting gave the attending veterinarians, police officers, animal welfarists and conservationists an opportunity to discuss the applications for forensic science in the investigation and prosecution of wildlife crime.

Mistakes in the documentation used by criminals in attempts to cover their tracks are not unusual. McWilliam noted a case where another egg collector had forged a record card, stating that the egg was taken pre1954 in the West Midlands, an administrative region that was only established in 1972. But in many cases the evidence has to be passed on to laboratory-based colleagues.

They are able to carry out tests like the carbon-14 analysis used to refute an ivory dealer’s claim that she was only handling 19th century items, created before the 1975 CITES treaty which seeks to prevent the international trade in endangered species and their products.

Nevin Hunter is another former police officer and head of compliance with DEFRA’s wildlife licensing and registration department, which has responsibility for administering the CITES regulations. This is a small unit with only eight members of staff and so it is forced to concentrate on a few key priorities. One of these was in controlling the international trade in caviar, harvested from various species of sturgeon, some highly endangered.

A biscuit tin-sized consignment of the famous delicacy is worth around £20,000 and so there is a lot of money to be made in repackaging the imported product into smaller volumes.

DNA analysis

Mr Hunter described one recent case in which DNA analysis of the caviar showed that it did not come from the starry sturgeon Acipenser stellatus, as indicated on the import documents, but the much rarer ship sturgeon A. nudiventris, a “non-quota species” which cannot be traded at all.

Hunter’s team followed the paper trail through Belgium and Turkey and found that it appeared to end at the doors of the Kazakhstan state monopoly. Although it was not possible to take the case to court, such investigations are still useful. They will help to discourage the trade as importers know there is strict liability for companies involved in importing illegal goods and so they cannot plead ignorance if the true source is a protected species, he said.

In other cases, the investigation is conducted much closer to home. Mr Hunter described the case of David Neville Johnson, a 21-year-old from Telford jailed for eight months for illegally trading in two endangered chelonian species, the Hermann’s and spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo hermanni and T. graeca).

‘In it for the money’

The investigation was carried out by the local Shropshire constabulary, the UK Borders Agency and the NWCU and focused on the use of false documents to obtain permits to sell the tortoises as captive-bred. Johnson made an estimated £30,000 from selling the tortoises and he told investigators “Conservation is no concern of mine – I am in it for the money,” Hunter recalled at the meeting.

There are equally large sums to be made from many of the products traded in defiance of the CITES regulations, such as the rhinoceros horn and tiger carcases used in traditional Chinese medicines.

In some cases, the live animal is a valuable commodity and criminals will go to extreme lengths to obtain them, explained John Hayward, an animal theft investigator with the Federation of Zoos. Break-ins at zoological collections have become increasingly common over the past few years with parrots, chelonians and small monkeys the usual targets.

Members of those species in private hands may also be at risk and Mr Hayward suggested that veterinary surgeons should encourage their clients to have their animals microchipped to improve the chances that the pets can be traced and returned.

He also noted the importance of keeping photographs of rare and valuable animals, noting that the markings on the plastron (undershell) of a tortoise are as individual as a fingerprint.

Veterinary surgeons may also have a role in investigating wildlife crime, particularly in relation to crimes involving welfare abuses of native species, such as badger baiting. Professor Dick Shepherd, a Home Office-accredited pathologist and a consultant at St George’s Hospital, London, offered some advice to the tyro veterinary forensic investigator.

Great care needed

The first and most important lesson is the need to treat any crime scene with great care to avoid damaging crucial evidence or misdirecting the investigation. Just as in most clinical cases the diagnosis can be gained from the history alone, then so will the crime scene provide most of the evidence needed for a forensic investigation, with lab-based pathology needed only for confirmation, he said.

When working in the field, it is vital to keep clear, legible and complete notes. Written notes are preferable to a sound recording as it is much easier to find and refer to the key points when called into the witness box.

Photographs of the scene are also extremely useful; it is important to have a scale alongside the key items and it is better to have the original image rather than one tidied up with an image manipulation program, like Photoshop.

Never guess…

Prof. Shepherd said it was vital that veterinary surgeons and any other witnesses of fact stayed within their area of expertise when under cross-examination. “You should never, ever guess,” he said. When there was any uncertainty, it was perfectly acceptable to admit to not knowing the answer and to insist on the need for more information, he said.

Professor John Cooper, a recognised specialist in zoological medicine at the University of Cambridge, also offered tips on field investigations of wildlife crimes. While DNA analysis is an undoubtedly powerful tool, there is much that can be done with traditional technologies such as light microscopy, he said.

Accurate identification of the species involved is a prerequisite for any zoological investigation and he lamented both the erosion in taxonomical knowledge within the British university system and the dispersal of many key collections of reference samples due to funding problems in natural history museums around the world.

High costs

Economic issues also affect the work of the national network of 77 registered wildlife inspectors engaged in tackling wildlife crimes. The cost of a single DNA test to establish the parentage of an animal (circa £1,500) or developing a test for species-specific genetic markers for a rare raptor (about £9,000) would make a big hole in his department’s meagre £100,000 annual budget. So it was unsatisfactory that many magistrates or judges neglect to award costs to the prosecution at the conclusion of a successful investigation, Mr Hunter said.

The “polluter pays principle” should be applied in the case of wildlife crimes just as firmly as it is in other environmental issues, such as prosecutions resulting from leakages of dangerous industrial chemicals.

Encouraging signs

The inexperience of prosecution solicitors and the judiciary in dealing with environmental cases was another serious problem for those attempting to fight wildlife crime, he continued.

If these people have no understanding of the significance of such crimes it is easy to dismiss the offences as trivial, he said.

However, there have been some encouraging signs that the court system is prepared to treat wildlife crimes more seriously.

There is now a single prosecutor with responsibility for all wildlife cases in Scotland and the Magistrates Association has produced an updated version of a publication Costing the Earth giving advice on the significance of environmental crimes and offering directions on sentencing in such cases, Mr Hunter said.

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