Use foren­sic science to drag Mu­galan’s killers into court

Top ex­pert urges re­think on wildlife crime in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS/COMMENT - By Malaka Ro­drigo

In­ves­ti­ga­tions into crimes against an­i­mals should be han­dled as foren­si­cally as nor­mal crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, a top an­i­mal crimes ex­pert urged as sad­ness and anger swept the na­tion over the killing of the Udawalawe tusker, Mu­galan, last week.

The max­i­mum penalty for the cul­prits was urged.

“A proper crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tion is the first step in tack­ling wildlife crimes,” said Ravi Per­era, an in­ter­na­tional ex­pert in wildlife crime who has of­fered, us­ing his Serendip­ity Wildlife Foun­da­tion, to train Sri Lankan per­son­nel to in­ves­ti­gate such in­ci­dents.

Mr. Per­era has nearly 25 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with spe­cial ex­per­tise in wildlife crime. Now based in the United States, he is reg­u­larly en­gaged in solv­ing wildlife crime cases in Africa, es­pe­cially in Kenya where or­gan­ised gangs of poach­ers hunt ele­phants and rhi­nos for their tusks and horns.

“While the method of in­ves­ti­ga­tion is the same, a wildlife crime scene is very dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­day crime scenes in cities’ Mr. Per­era ex­plained: in­ves­ti­ga­tors are deal­ing with pos­si­bly a de­com­pos­ing car­cass or a car­cass that has been par­tially or com­pletely de­voured by an­other an­i­mal.

“Very often, we have to work in harsh sur­round­ings, rough ter­rain, and even in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions where ele­phants and rhi­nos could re­turn to the lo­ca­tion to pro­tect the dead,” Mr. Per­era said.

While a crime scene in ur­ban ar­eas could be some­times worked with one or two per­son­nel, a crime scene in the wild would re­quire armed guards to se­cure the scene as well as per­son­nel to take pho­to­graphs, gather ev­i­dence and search the crime scene.

The crime scene it­self is much larger in the wild, where a sus­pect’s shoe or foot­prints or a tyre track from a ve­hi­cle could be lo­cated sev­eral hun­dred me­ters away.

The an­i­mal could have been shot at one place but have suc­cumbed to its wounds a dis­tance away. The lo­ca­tion where the an­i­mal was shot is as im­por­tant as the place it died as key ev­i­dence could be found at ei­ther lo­ca­tion or in be­tween them.

“In shoot­ing cases such as Mu­galan’s it is im­por­tant to fo­cus on key ev­i­dence such as the pro­jec­tiles ( bul­lets) re­cov­ered from the car­cass. If the pro­jec­tile is not se­verely dam­aged, there is equip­ment in foren­sic labs to de­ter­mine the type of weapon it was fired from,” the ex­pert said.

Most pro­jec­tiles found in an­i­mals re­main in­tact due to body mass and bones un­less there is an exit wound and the pro­jec­tile is un­re­cov­er­able.

“We also search for the cas­ings that have been ejected from the weapon. Should a weapon be re­cov­ered, these cas­ings can be matched in the lab to a test-fired cas­ing from the weapon. Very often, a per­fect match is enough to con­vict a crim­i­nal.

“If a sus­pect is found, a sus­pect’s cloth­ing that he wore at the time of the shoot­ing can be ex­am­ined for gun­shot residue,” Mr. Per­era said.

Poach­ers in Sri Lanka also use wire snares and “hakka patas” – im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices

em­bed­ded in food that blow the an­i­mal’s head apart.

“Un­for­tu­nately, ob­tain­ing ev­i­dence from snares is al­most im­pos­si­ble,” Mr. Per­era said. “You have catch the cul­prit in pos­ses­sion of the de­vice to even con­sider pros­e­cu­tion.

“Hakka patas too would be very hard to an­a­lyse for ev­i­dence as it is often dis­cov­ered af­ter the dam­age is done, and gath­er­ing DNA ev­i­dence to match to the sus­pect is im­pos­si­ble due to the fact that it has been se­verely contaminated with the baited fruit and is then mixed with the ele­phant’s saliva and other body flu­ids – not to men­tion that the ex­plo­sion fur­ther de­stroys your ev­i­dence.”

Mr. Per­era, who works with in­ter­na­tional agen­cies in curb­ing wildlife crime, raised the need for Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties to use new tools and tech­nol­ogy.

“Foren­sic tools and tech­nol­ogy have in­creased in leaps and bounds within the last eight to 10 years,” he said. “When it was pre­vi­ously im­pos­si­ble to do so, pre­sump­tive blood tests, gun­shot residue- test­ing, ther­mal imag­ing, in­fra- red pho­tog­ra­phy, fin­ger­print anal­y­sis and much more can now be done on­site and the re­sults ob­tained within a few min­utes.

“Foren­sic crime labs are also equipped with laser imag­ing and var­i­ous light sources to an­a­lyse fin­ger­prints and ma­chines to process DNA and ob­tain re­sults in about an hour,” he said.

While a crime scene in ur­ban ar­eas could be some­times worked with one or two per­son­nel, a crime scene in the wild would re­quire armed guards to se­cure the scene as well as per­son­nel to take pho­to­graphs, gather ev­i­dence and search the crime scene.

Ravi Per­era is reg­u­larly en­gaged in solv­ing wildlife crime cases in Africa, es­pe­cially in Kenya

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