File this one under simple ideas that are so genius, it’s a wonder we didn’t start using them sooner.
We’ve been solving crimes with fingerprinting techniques since the 1980s, so it was really only a matter of time before someone thought of applying the science to the world of wildlife crime, too. Especially when it comes to helping protect and stop the trafficking of the pangolin, which is considered the most poached animal in the world.
Enter former New Scotland Yard detective and Zoological Society of London law enforcement advisor Christian Plowman, along with his former boss at the Metropolitan Police, Brian Chappell (now a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth). According to National Geographic, the duo came up with the idea of using gel-lifters to fingerprint pangolin scales the same way many historic ideas have come to fruition over the years: over a cup of coffee.
“We were discussing a simple, easy-to-use method, suitable for a wide range of geographical environments, and with as little complication as possible,” Plowman told the publication. “To our knowledge, no one is using the gel to look at wildlife crime, and this is the first time evidential level fingermarks have been obtained from pangolin scales.”
Chappell and Plowman recognized that traditional fingerprinting kits that use powder, brushes, and tape were probably too bulky and unrealistic for field rangers who need to work quickly in order to evade lurking poachers. But the gelatin lifters (small sheets with an adhesive on one side that crime scene investigators use to collect fingerprints) were a lot more practical.
So far the technique has only been tested in the lab, where researchers used 10 pangolin scales from several species obtained from the UK Border Force. Five people handled each scale before a gelatin lifter was applied, removed, and scanned for prints on both the front and back. In the early trials 89 per cent of those lifts were clear and detailed enough for identification. The results were so promising that now rangers in Cameroon and Kenya are trying the process out in the field.
Considering that an estimated 300 pangolins are poached every day, it’s a necessary advancement for the animals and their future. The creatures are used in traditional Asian medicines and eaten as a delicacy, resulting in the four Asian species becoming critically endangered over the past decade. Meanwhile, that’s forced a competitive market for the four African species of the animal, putting them at risk as well. (The international commercial trade of pangolins and their parts has been banned since 2016.)
The promise of gel print-lifting doesn’t stop with pangolins though. Field testers have also been successfully lifting prints off bird feathers and ivory, which basically means this could be a game-changer for the poaching industry as a whole.
Of course it won’t take long for poachers to catch on and start wearing gloves, but researchers are hopeful the potential of gel-lifting now opens the door for the application of other forensic techniques to the world of wildlife crime.
“This new development is a promising tool for combating the illegal trade in pangolins,” Paul Thomson, a conservation biologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Save Pangolins also told National Geographic. “We need to see advanced techniques like this applied to every step in the chain of wildlife crime.”