Forensic teams tackle wildlife crime
Dr Rob Ogden of the Conservation Genetics Unit tells us about a new partnership with the Scottish Government.
A partnership between Edinburgh University and the Scottish Government aims to increase the use of forensic science in tackling the fight against wildlife crime.
The new Conservation Genetics Research Unit at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies has formed closer ties with the Scottish Government's Wildlife DNA Forensics Unit to explore how scientists can best support wildlife crime investigations at home and abroad.
The extent of the problem in Scotland was recently highlighted by a major report by Scottish Natural Heritage. It estimates that almost one third of golden eagles tracked by satellite have died in suspicious circumstances.
Dr Rob Ogden is the new Head of Conservation Genetics at the Dick Vet. Formerly Director of Conservation for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and also programme director for the international wildlife forensics network TRACE, Rob believes the new partnership is well-positioned to make a lasting difference.
"Conservation genetics has a much larger remit than simply wildlife crime, but in terms of the scale of that specific problem in the UK, the headline issue is definitely about birds of prey," he says.
"There are persistent serial offenders in the UK. Ultimately, the objective behind this kind of forensic work is about creating a situation where the chances of being caught and prosecuted are so high that we are dissuading people from engaging in the practice."
To do this, Rob's team will work with the Wildlife Forensics Unit, run by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), a division of the Scottish Government. This is the only DNA lab in the UK dedicated to wildlife enforcement.
"The SASA lab is a forensic quality-controlled environment but they don’t particularly have the capacity to carry out the research and development into new techniques," he says.
"For example, they do a lot of work on DNA profiling and toxicology, which can identify individual birds and determine their cause of death. Here at the Dick Vet, we can develop new techniques which can then complement the work at the SASA lab."
The persecution of birds of prey is far from the only issue of concern however. Badger baiting, the poaching of deer and hares, and illegal fishing are all problem areas in the UK. There is also a lucrative illegal market in the importation of animals such as reptiles and birds.
In a wider global context, conservation genetics is as much about capacity building and information sharing as it is about tackling specific incidences of wildlife crime.
As part of his role with the TRACE network, Rob has been heavily involved in working with genetics labs in Africa and South-East Asia to enable teams to develop their own forensic techniques for wildlife crime enforcement.
In his new role with the Dick Vet, this work will continue. Plans are already in place, for example, for the establishment of a new Masters degree course in applied conservation genetics with wildlife forensics.
"I have collaborated over the years with The Roslin Institute on genetics projects," he adds.
“Here at the Dick Vet, they already have a well-established conservation medicine speciality, looking at the use of veterinary medical practice and science in the conservation of wildlife. So, to add genetics to that was the obvious next step.”