Forensic Science is a branch of science that pertains to criminal law. Each field has its fair share of hidden surprises that only the lucky few get to be witness to. Wildlife forensics has many goals. Those involved in this field have the tasks of ending the illegal wildlife trade and working to protect wild animals from the threat of extinction (1). I began my work at Woodlands Wildlife working with the animals hands on, it wasn’t until I began week 5 of my internship that I learned exactly how much is involved in this less known scientific field.
The work Woodlands is involved in includes assisting the state of New Jersey in preserving the animals less known to the state to bring them back from the brink. The Pine Barrens are one of the most secluded and diverse areas on the east coast. With 1.1 million acres of land it makes up twenty-two percent of New Jersey’s land, making it an ideal spot for wildlife conservation, but also the trafficking of animals. (1,2,3)Common animals across New Jersey include the white-tailed deer, raccoon, the threatened black bear and dozens of bird and reptile species. Created by Congress in 1978, the pine barrens is designated as an international biosphere reserve in 1988. (4) What is less known is the number of species found only in the pine barrens. Among the animals being closely monitored are the river otter, the deadly copperhead rattlesnake, the bobcat and even the majestic mountain lion.
These species were all hunted to extinction in the majority of the United States for their valuable skins, it wasn’t until congress passed the Endangered Species Act which ended the fur trade of any species that was declared threatened that slowly brought their numbers up. (4,5) Seeing these animals are extremely rare in this state as for unknown reasons they are found only in one location, the pine barrens. The habitats are able to keep any animal alive thanks to the diversity of its terrain. Scientists continue to investigate what is it about the pine barrens that attracts these animals that are not seen in other parts of the state. Botanists have collected and analyzed hundreds of plants and trees, testing has been done on the water and cameras are all over. There is a steady increase over the past years as scientists continue to track the progress of these animals and their numbers.
Woodlands Wildlife became involved once its official opening as this is the only rehabilitation center that has the permits and the land to take care of these threatened species. Dozens have been brought in for severe injuries and each before being released are fitted with a tracking collar that will follow their progress for up to two years before it will fall off naturally. According to scientists the river otters and bobcats which were previously treated at our facility have remained in the same vicinity as they were captured in. These areas are protected, meaning they are a high wildlife trafficking case, black bears are the number one animal that is poached for their body parts to be sold on the black market as undercover evidence has shown by the Fish & Game Department.(2,4) The Copperhead which is the deadliest snake in all the state has over the years made their way out and into human populated areas.
The biggest surprise and a somewhat secret case is the mountain lions sighted in the same areas as are being investigated. The problem is, there is no photographic evidence of a mountain lion present. My one question that I was allowed to ask was why are we assuming there are mountain lions? The response was surprising as the amount of evidence found. Through wildlife forensic testing it was confirmed that footprints, bite marks found on other animals found and hairs that were discovered were concluded to be that of a mountain lion, all animal hairs are microscopically different so it is very easy to determine the difference between the hair of a mountain lion with another species such as a bear or deer or another wild cat such as a bobcat. The research performed by the state officials have confirmed the presence of these animals in the state but not as a permanent state animal. There are two possibilities, one could be that these are naturally elusive animals are experts in staying out of sight or they are using the dense forests of the pine barrens as a gateway to other states.
Any information gathered on endangered animals is vital to their survival. One hair, tooth mark or photograph can tell you a lot, for example the approximate age of that animal. If a species is determined to be a juvenile or an infant that is a sign that the species is making a home in the area. If an animal is determined to be an adult than there is the possibility that the animals are only passing through. This past season there was a bobcat kitten around 8 weeks old, a very good sign for this animal as New Jersey may be the state that could help bring these animals off the threatened species list. Another piece of information was a wound on its leg; photographs and an examination by the veterinarian determined it was a minor puncture wound, this could have potentially come from another sibling, adding to the population of cats.
This research being done conforms that wildlife forensics is not just a forgotten field, it helps in more ways than one, animals are being brought back from extinction and the issue of poaching animals for their parts is slowly decreasing over time thanks to new science and technology being introduced. Whenever an animal that is on the threatened list is brought in, its treated like a homicide investigation because of the high stakes of all the information one animal can give. Just from one hair follicle it was determined that a mountain lion was in the state where records showed them extinct decades ago and it’s a healthy young animal. Working with a group of experts on this issue opened my eyes to just how important this work is, it could be normal one day to see something like a river otter in local bodies of water or even a potential mountain lion in the more rural and dense parts of the state.
The research being done in the field of wildlife forensics not only benefits the survival of a species, but also the environment and people as well. When state biologists or forensic specialists analyze samples of the land, air and water in anyway it identifies any problems that could harm even humans. Past cases have included several dead fish surrounding a lake that is used to supply water to local towns, as a result of testing for the benefit of the aquatic life in the lake, those who also relied on the lake to supply their homes with water were also protected from any further disaster.
International cases are also a great learning tool for state agencies. All over the world, animal related organizations are using the tools of Wildlife Forensics in order to solve cases that threaten to bring dome of the rarest animals back from extinction. Animals such as the tiger and the rare black rhino are amongst those animals that would not be with us now if wildlife forensics were not here to assist in ending the crimes against them. When other countries have successful plans in preventing a wildlife related crime, they share that information especially since wildlife trafficking occurs in every country. The research being done has made steady progress with the hopes that these animals will eventually be brought back from the brink of extinction.