The University of Rhode Island’s Forensic Science Seminar Series welcomed Dr. R. Christopher O’Brien of the University of New Haven last Friday to set the record straight on what wildlife forensic science is all about.

While O’Brien humorously poked fun at the fact that some people believe wildlife forensics to be an investigation of animal-on-animal violence, he expressed the serious message of how wildlife forensics helps prevent exploitation of plants and animals from humans.

He described animal activists as the proactive group against these types of exploitations, whereas forensic scientists play a much different role in deterring crimes against wildlife.  

“All of forensics is reactive, not proactive,” O’Brien said.  “Something has to occur, so a crime has to occur and it has to be brought to us.  We can’t be proactive. We’re not Batman. We don’t go looking for crime.”

That doesn’t mean that wildlife forensics fails to bring forth justice, however. Scientists of wildlife forensics help to bring down fur, leather and hide sales, ivory poaching, bushmeat trading, exotic pet trafficking, and the traditional medicine market.  

Current research at the University of New Haven that is working towards advances in the field of wildlife forensics are looking at shark fins, imaging of fins, scavenging, eagle talon identification, salt lakes, and even the production of fossils. Whether or not if O’Brian’s research has helped bring down crime, he’s unsure, but he hopes it helps.  

“The reason why I don’t know is because I do the research, I publish it, and I put it out there for everybody,” O’Brien said.

Despite laws like the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, CITES, and other laws that function to protect wildlife, O’Brien said that illegal trading is hard to manage, and hard to enforce.  Moreover, it’s not tracked as seriously as illegal contraband, like guns and drugs because it doesn’t have an immediate visceral response.  

The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWGWILD) estimated that illegal wildlife trading within the United States generates $53 billion a year, but O’Brien feels that this may be underreported.  The Internet has been a huge contributor to how easily people are able to buy and sell illegal goods.  

Each semester, O’Brien has a special one-hour class meeting which he allows students to search the web in order to find as many illegal products as they can.  One year, a student found as many as 60 illegal goods.  

“They’ve found ivory, we’ve found illegal coral, illegal hides and pelts, meats,” O’Brien said. “You name it, they’ve found it.”

As long as there is a demand people will continue to exploit wild plants and animals, but so far consequence have not been severe enough to deter enough people.  Part of the reason O’Brien said he speaks publicly about wildlife forensics is that he hopes his audience members will get frustrated enough to start help making necessary changes.