News Release

Forensic science combats wildlife trafficking

A $2.6 million grant will fund a new wildlife forensic center to support Botswana’s fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.

Grant and Award Announcement

Virginia Tech

For pangolins in Africa, a pattern of overlapping scales is a vital armor against predatory lions, hyenas, snakes, and wild dogs. The scales – composed of the same keratin that makes up our fingernails – allow the threatened mammals to curl up into a ball, protecting their vulnerable underside.

For traffickers of illegal wildlife, those scales are a unique and valuable currency, capable of moving untraced across national borders and a significant driver of criminal activities that threaten both wildlife populations and human communities around the globe.

To combat the challenges of wildlife trafficking, Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment was awarded a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs to develop a state-of-the-art wildlife forensics laboratory in Kasane, Botswana, that will be operated collaboratively with the Botswana government.

The new wildlife forensic laboratory will expand the research portfolio in Botswana of Professor Kathleen Alexander, the William E. Lavery Professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. The laboratory will allow researchers and interagency law enforcement professionals to rapidly use DNA evidence to investigate and prosecute wildlife trafficking in northern Botswana. The grant also will support a novel experiential learning program that will launch Botswana’s multiagency wildlife crime training and response units: the Elite Team.

Virginia Tech will partner with the Republic of Botswana as well as the nongovernmental organization Centre for African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL), which Alexander founded in 2001. The Wildlife Investigation Training Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization, will lead educational components of the project with Virginia Tech and its partners.

“Wildlife trafficking is escalating across the globe and is increasingly seen as a threat to conservation and local livelihoods,” said Alexander, the principal investigator on the grant. “But more significantly, we’re seeing that wildlife trafficking is part of an integrated system that allows criminal syndicates to operate and grow. Tackling wildlife crime is not just about conservation related impacts, it’s about national and global security.”

The wildlife forensic center is the latest addition to Virginia Tech’s collaborative relationship with the government of Botswana. In March  2023, His Excellency Eric Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi, president of Botswana, became the first international head of state to visit the Blacksburg campus. In October of last year, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands traveled to Botswana to meet with Masisi and attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the new forensic center.

“While Botswana is identified as a leader in conservation in the region, there is a significant need to address emergent gaps in the country’s ability to fight wildlife crime,” Masisi said at the ground-breaking ceremony. “This facility will, therefore, become a critical hub in our collective efforts to protect the precious natural resources bequeathed to us.”

Adapting to an evolving challenge

From pangolin scales and elephant ivory to shark fins and jaguar meat, the illegal wildlife trade has emerged as one of the greatest threats to many charismatic animal species around the world. It is also a trade that is staggeringly lucrative, with illicit wildlife trafficking estimated to bring profits between $7.8 billion and $10 billion per year, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

That wealth is driven and controlled by sophisticated groups of international criminal networks that exploit the natural resources of developing countries to turn significant profits through the sale and transport of illegal products across the globe.

This illegal trade has impacts on the biodiversity of species as well as human and animal health. The illegal trade of wildlife presents a risk of zoonotic disease spread, and the transfer of funds through criminal organizations carries significant national security risks.

Botswana, a democratic country in southern Africa that boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, sits at an important intersection in the global effort to combat illegal wildlife trade. Chobe National Park, in the northern part of the country, boasts the largest population of African elephants in the world along with wild populations of pangolins, lions, antelope, giraffe, and numerous bird species.

Alexander’s research portfolio in Botswana embraces a One Health approach, engaging the complexity of coupled natural and human systems. CARACAL partners with communities, the Botswana government, and other agencies to tackle subjects as diverse as zoonotic disease spread, challenges to water quality, climate change, and community adaptations and livelihood strategies.

With the establishment of a new wildlife forensic center supported by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Alexander and CARACAL add another dimension of impact: a focus on wildlife trafficking as a driver of broader security and conservation challenges in southern Africa.

“This laboratory and the associated training programs will take a unique and partnered approach with the government of Botswana to advance wildlife security in the region,” said Alexander. “Without DNA forensics in northern Botswana, investigations and prosecutorial functions are hampered. This laboratory and the development of the Botswana government’s Elite Team exemplifies Botswana’s commitment to innovation and leadership in fighting wildlife crime and securing conservation of natural resources in the region.”

A second challenge in combating the illegal trade of wildlife is finding out the source of trafficked animal products. The wildlife forensic center will utilize innovative technologies to determine if materials such as lion bone are being harvested from wild animals or animals kept in captive populations.

“Using samples and data from across Botswana and Africa, we can begin to identify where seized wildlife products originated,” said Alexander. “We can use this information to track wildlife smuggling to its origin, and develop appropriate response strategies.”

The new wildlife forensic center will be developed as a focal point for collaborative efforts to prevent wildlife trafficking within and beyond Botswana’s borders. The team will bring emerging technologies to bear on the challenge of illegal trafficking.

“We will also harness the power of next-generation DNA sequencing technology to interrogate complex samples and products that remain difficult to evaluate with more traditional molecular approaches,” said Alexander.

A knowledge partner for global impact

While visiting Botswana in October for the groundbreaking ceremony, Sands stressed the collaborative relationship between the university and the Botswana government.

“Today, as we break ground, we are laying the foundation for a place where our visions intersect,” Sands said. “A place of exciting potential for Virginia Tech’s service-oriented, global land-grant mission and Botswana’s national vision to advance a continental agenda of peace and prosperity for all.”

Masisi said the new forensic center will enhance Botswana’s role as a leader in combating illegal wildlife trade.

“Given Botswana’s critical role in southern Africa, strengthening capacity to counter wildlife poaching is identified as a priority for both the government and the international community,” said Masisi. “The construction of the wildlife forensic laboratory demonstrates our unwavering commitment to conservation, justice, and our shared future.

Alexander hopes that Virginia Tech’s continued collaboration with the Botswana government can be a model for how universities can bring knowledge to bear on the key challenges facing the world.

“The basis of this entire collaboration sets the stage for showing how academic universities and governments can partner at the highest level,” Alexander said. “This reflects Virginia Tech’s unique commitment to service, and I hope that this can serve as a model for our students and others to look to in the future when asking how we can bring peace, secure democracy, alleviate poverty, and address inequality in communities most in need of service."

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