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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wildlife forensic entomology

from WWF Canada via the WWF Canada facebook page
Guest blog: CSI and wildlife crime
By Dr. Gail S. Anderson
Director, Undergraduate Programmes, School of Criminology
Co-Director, Centre for Forensic Research
Simon Fraser University

Forensic entomology is used in homicide cases to estimate elapsed time since death, but can also be used to determine whether the body has been moved or disturbed after death, the position of wound sites and whether poison or drugs were involved. I took my first homicide case on when I was just a graduate student in 1988, and was fascinated that I was able to apply my knowledge of insects in such a useful manner. I was hooked, and since then, I am usually involved in 10-20 human death investigations a year.

However, insects don’t care whether they are feeding on a dead human being or a dead bear, so forensic entomology can be just as useful in a poaching case, as a homicide, although conservation officers are unfortunately, not nearly as aware of forensic evidence as police officers. This is something I really want to change and I am actively involved in teaching conservation officers the value of insect evidence.

I have been involved in several poaching and meat wastage cases, but I think my most memorable was a case of serial bear killings in Manitoba a few years ago. Five black bears were killed at a garbage dump, and in each case, their gall bladders had been removed, so they had all been killed for profit. The adults that were killed were mostly pregnant or lactating, meaning that they left orphaned cubs behind. The media got involved and the public were incensed. Unfortunately, no insects were collected from the carcasses, as the officers were unaware of the value of insect evidence. However, the day after the story hit the newspapers, including pictures of cute baby bear cubs hiding in trees at the dump, two of those little cubs were shot, disemboweled and their minute gall bladders removed. These would have no commercial value but the poachers obviously did not know that. Due to the intense public and media interest, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called in, as well as conservation officers, and one of the police members was someone who had been involved in several of the homicides in which I had testified. He was, therefore, well aware of the value of forensic entomology and he immediately collected the insects and sent them to me.

I was able to estimate the elapsed time since death of the cubs and this was used in the conviction of the two poachers. The judge considered the insect evidence to be extremely valuable. Poaching offences are often not taken very seriously by the courts so it was gratifying to see that the judge did consider this offence to be very serious. The maximum sentence they could have received was 12 months in prison, 6 per cub. The judge sentenced them to 6 months, which was appealed down to 3 months and they probably actually served only a few weeks, but this was the first time in Canada that poachers were sent to prison for this offence, so it set precedent.

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