Animal CSI: Lab Targets Illegal Species Traffic

Scientists use CSI techniques to crack black market in endangered species parts.

November 4, 2009, 12:07 PM

Nov. 6, 2009 — -- Rare and beautiful animals such as the clouded leopard or douc langur monkey spend their lives in the jungles of southeast Asia.

In death, they might end up in, of all places, an open U.S. market catering to southeast Asian immigrants. At one such market in Minnesota, in the shadow of the state capitol, federal agents recently uncovered a tiny slice of a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise that is rarely seen.

"Slow loris is a primate," said federal agent Sheila O'Connor, explaining photos of evidence confiscated from the market. "These are dholes, dhole hide. These are tapir feet. [A dhole is a member of the dog family; the tapir is an endangered relative of the rhino]. These are douc langur parts. These are hands and feet both."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents say illegal trafficking in wildlife is the No. 1 threat of extinction for animals ranging from elephants to tigers.

Minneapolis airport inspector Linda Benson ran smack into the strange underworld during a routine check of passengers disembarking from a flight from Laos.

"When we found the primate and the elephant skin and the elephant teeth, um, you know, we knew we were on to something," Benson said.

The passenger carrying the illegal goods hardly looked like a top predator in the black-market world of animal trafficking, Benson said. She was an elderly Laotian woman by the name of Pa Lor.

But her luggage told another story. She was carrying a ghoulish collection -- more than a thousand claws, teeth and skins.

"Usually when we work passengers, we'll find maybe one item they might be bringing in, one item," said Benson. "With her it was such a large quantity, and then when we started picking out the primate skins and the serow horn. It was just amazing."

The serow is a small hoofed animal endemic to Taiwan.

Inspector Benson called federal agent O'Connor.

They tracked the woman to a stall in the market and sent a Laotian-speaking agent undercover with a camera.

What he found, they say, was a marketplace for rare animal parts that were smuggled into the United States to be used for everything from medicine to sending a person bad luck.

The agent discovered thousands of pieces -- many from endangered species.

There was a 14-pound elephant tooth for sale. The entire face of a rare primate was being offered for thousands of dollars.

As we went in and looked at some other things we learned what some of the products were purported to be. One was serow blood in little jars. Dried, it looked like coffee grounds with red dye in it.

"It's used medicinally," said O'Connor.

Nation's Only Wildlife Forensics Lab

In fact, traditional medicines drive the demand for many endangered animals on the black market.

"We're interested in knowing if any of these products might be made with protected wildlife," said O'Connor.

But how would one know? From the packaging, it seems impossible to tell.

"It's pretty difficult when it's packaged like this," said O'Connor.

Tracing an endangered animal from a bottle of medicine -- or even the skin used to make a woman's purse or pair of boots -- is extraordinarily complex.

But that is exactly what agents do every day at the nation's only wildlife forensics lab. It is in Ashland, Ore.

"I have a skin with no head and the feet are turned inside and dried, so I have to come up with what this was," said lab analyst Bonnie Yates. "No tail," she observed.

Yates ID'd a small clawed Asian otter.

"I start out by doing a microscopic examination of the hair, that tells me what family I'm in," she said.

Yates is an animal morphologist. She studies the shapes and structures of claws and other parts and is expert in determining what they are.

She showed ABC News how she began dissecting the case, piece by piece.

Yates' lab has a collection, something like Noah's Ark, of every animal imaginable -- a catalogue of samples used as a basis for comparison when evidence like that found in the Pa Lor case is shipped in.

"I said, 'You have elephant, you have serow, you have loris, you have douc langur -- all of these primates and endangered animals,'" said Yates. "I said this is really big."

Big cases are nothing new here.

This lab is such a unique resource that samples are sent in from around the world, from some of the 175 countries that have signed a treaty to prevent the trade of endangered animals.

It is a tough treaty to enforce.

"Human and wildlife forensics is really similar in a couple of ways," said Laurel Neme, author of "Animal Investigators," a book about the Oregon lab. "They both link a crime to a suspect and a victim, but with wildlife forensics you end up with 30,000 species of victim compared to human forensics, where it's just one."

Neme has studied dozens of animal-smuggling cases in every corner of the globe.

"Killing animals is a big business, it's worth probably $20 billion a year, it's the third-largest black-market crime in the world, following drugs," said Neme.

'A Very High Price Tag'

O'Connor said that in some cases the market for animals was bigger.

"Some of these wildlife products are more valuable than drugs," she said, pointing out a rhino horn that might bring roughly $100,000 on the black market.

The animal parts are so expensive because in some cultures, a rhinoceros horn is believed to be a cure for cancer.

But just seizing animal parts isn't enough.

In the Pa Lor investigation at the market, it took the wildlife lab months to figure out what animals they were dealing with in order to move forward with a case.

The variety of what they had to examine was enormous.

ABC News cameras were there as lab technicians handled dried elephant skin and pieces of an elephant's trunk, hooves and toenails.

Yates held a monkey face.

"That's his face, yes," she said. "And that had a very high price tag on it, I think $5,000."

Together the pieces make a surreal pile of evidence from a crime that agents say is devastating the world's forests and jungles.

"It's harming a lot of people, and you have to remember, when a species goes extinct from the planet we all lose," said O'Connor. "It doesn't come back, we can't make more. They are resources that belong to all of us, and when resources disappear the whole planet can get out of whack."

The case in Minneapolis, disturbing as it is and affecting as it does so many animals, is just a drop in the bucket.

"The biggest wildlife case in Brazil was cracked in March. It involved $20 million a year and 500,000 animals a year and [the] arrest of over 70 people worldwide," said Neme.

Animals are relying on some very high-tech friends half a world away to hunt down and convict the worst predators of all.

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