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New forensic academy to be powerful weapon to combat wildlife crimes

13 May 2022 - 11:28
The Wildlife Forensic Academy recreates wildlife crime scenes and aims to train students and game rangers on forensic evidence collection and analysis to help counter poaching and the illicit trade in wildlife.
The Wildlife Forensic Academy recreates wildlife crime scenes and aims to train students and game rangers on forensic evidence collection and analysis to help counter poaching and the illicit trade in wildlife.
Image: supplied

A new state-of-the-art forensic academy in SA aims to train investigators to collect and analyse evidence from wildlife crime scenes.

The Wildlife Forensic Academy (WFA) was launched at Buffelsfontein Nature Reserve on the West Coast of the Western Cape on Friday as a weapon in the fight against wildlife crime.

The academy aims to provide forensic knowledge, awareness and training to game rangers, wildlife forensics students, wildlife veterinary students, conservation students and ecology students.

Director and co-founder of the WFA Dr Greg Simpson said most wildlife crime scenes were entered, trampled on and contaminated, destroying key evidence which could help in building strong cases against suspects and the organised crime syndicates fuelling the illicit trade in and poaching of wildlife.

“It must be understood that in most cases wildlife poaching is linked to organised crime. Using forensic evidence to bolster a criminal case can help combat poaching due to increased prosecution levels, subsequent financial chain disruptions and reduced repetitive crimes.

“The killing, poaching or abuse of animals happens in many cases in remote areas or in hidden places. Due to this there are never witness statements. We can only solve these cases with forensic evidence. That’s why we have to mobilise forensic knowledge and techniques.”

Training would include collecting and analysing evidence such as human traces, non-human traces, chemical traces, physical traces and digital traces. 

“We are able to detect, collect and analyse these traces to solve and prevent crime,” Simpson said.

Forensic intelligence would use data sets to better understand what nature reserves are up against.

“Effective anti-poaching operations rely heavily on ranger patrols. Nature conservation areas, however, are very big and boots on the ground comparatively scarce. The question is, how can we help the rangers to outwit the poachers?

“One of the answers is to make better use of data. Even in the remotest nature conservation areas, gigabytes of data are being generated by rangers, animal trackers, wildlife cameras, aerial surveys and satellites. This happens at ever-increasing volumes, varieties and velocities.”

The Data Science for Nature Conservation training course teaches participants how to use diverse data sources to better understand the dynamics of the terrain and how poachers are using it.

“Signs of criminal activities, combined with knowledge about their modus operandi, are used to create predictions. These can be used to anticipate wildlife crimes and give rangers the edge. By showing up at the right time, at the right place, with the right team, poachers are not only disrupted and caught red-handed, but deterred as the chance of getting caught becomes too high.”

Forensic intelligence is also a powerful way to link forensic evidence from one wildlife crime scene to another.

“Links, time-spatial patterns and trends are used to point criminal investigators in the right direction, narrowing the window of opportunity and closing the net around poachers,” said Simpson.

WFA CEO and founder Andro Vos said in many cases the specifics of a crime were not understood.

“The crime scene is entered and disrupted, with evidence being inadvertently altered due to the lack of forensic exploration. This leads to poor evidence and, in many cases, criminals and syndicates escape prosecution, which invariably leads to unchecked and increasing levels of crime.

“In SA and many parts of Africa, wildlife is one of our national treasures which generates enormous revenue, creates employment and helps uplift communities and we have to do everything we can to protect and preserve our natural heritage. We believe the Wildlife Forensic Academy is a critical tool in this fight,” he said.

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