Wildlife CSI

The TV series "CSI," based in Las Vegas, has been a big hit, spawning three franchise spin-offs — "CSI: Miami," "CSI: New York," and "CSI: Hard Evidence," plus video games, comic books, and novelizations.

In the "CSI" TV series, after the police find a crime, the forensics team descends on the crime scene to apply science to fighting crime.

Another popular TV series, "NCIS", also has a special forensic team to solve crimes involving the Navy and Marines.

Game Wardens, the "real secret service" of law enforcement, also use CSI science, but there is no special CSI field unit. Wardens do their own CSI fieldwork, gathering samples, bagging and tagging.

And if they are California Fish and Game Wardens, they take the blood, bones, hair, skin, saliva, fish eggs, tissue samples, spent ammunition, and objects with finger prints, etc. to the Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Forensics Lab in Rancho Cordova, run by Dr. Jeff Rodzen.

Autopsies have been a part of law enforcement for a long time. The FBI created the first crime forensic lab in 1932. The initial focus was ballistics, fingerprints and microscopic and chemical analyses of samples.

Dr. Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester in England first reported Genetic Analysis or DNA Fingerprinting in 1984. Tommy Lee Andrews of Florida was the first US criminal suspect to be convicted with DNA evidence. The year was 1987, the same year that DNA Fingerprinting was first used to convict a criminal in UK.

The California DFG Wildlife Forensic Lab, one of the first in the US, was initially developed by Dr. Jim Banks and the late Ken Levine, in the 1980's. The success of this lab has forever changed wildlife law, as the lab can do just about anything for wildlife that CSI labs do for human crime-solving.

On a recent visit to the lab, Dr. Rodzen showed me the metal table where "necropsies" are performed. He pointed out that "autopsies" are only done on humans, although the tools used are the same. Surrounding the table were devices like the gas chromatograph, etc. just like you see on TV.

Dr. Rodzen said that the biggest difference between human DNA analysis and that in a wildlife forensic lab is the amount of time needed to perform various tests. For example, if a warden comes in with blood on a hunting jacket, the first test is to determine what kind of animal the blood comes from. That takes at least 24 hours, not the quick lunch break turnaround you see on TV. And ideally, you need to run several samples to be sure of the results.

After the species the blood comes from is identified, the next step may be to match the DNA with another sample; such as comparing a spot of blood in the back of a truck with that of an animal. The final test is to track down the DNA's origin. That means comparing the new sample with existing database on genetic fingerprinting that has already been gathered.

That's going to take another day or two, under ideal conditions. Four days is about the amount of time to completely process a sample, under ideal conditions. Right now the DFG Forensic lab has only two full-time staff, which means that in fall and winter when hunting seasons are going full bore, the backlog can turn into several months as the freezers fill with carcasses and other evidence.

Some examples of what DNA Fingerprinting can do:

Abalone — Abalone fishing in California is a very popular sport. Only one species of abalone, reds, are legal, and the only legal red abalone are found north of the Golden Gate. With DNA fingerprinting, the lab can determine if an abalone in a kitchen in Los Angeles was taken north or south of the Golden Gate, roughly when, and even in what general ocean area within a few miles.

Deer — Black-tail and mule deer in California are herding creatures. Some herds migrate, especially those in the high Sierras, but lowland herds are pretty locked in to a particular area. The same is true for elk. The Forensic lab has been able to gather DNA from each of the state's deer and elk herds and map out the genomes of the state. As a result, from a spot of blood or a single hair, they can place just about any cervid to within 50 miles of where it was living. This severely hurts poachers who take a deer or elk in a closed zone and sneak it over into an open zone to make it look legal.

Sturgeon — There is a huge and lucrative business in illegal trading in sturgeon caviar. When a caviar sample comes into the lab, based on samples that have previously gathered, the lab can determine where the sturgeon came from. For example, if it is labeled someplace in Russia or Asia, the lab can determine if that is true, and in many cases they can track it down to the body of water where the sturgeon was living, as well as ascertain if it's from a wild (and therefore illegal, if domestic) fish, or one that is farmed.

Bear — There is a large demand for bear gall bladders for use in Oriental medicine. In China and Southeast Asia, there are even "bear farms" where bears are confined and "milked" for the gall bladders to make medicines. DNA analysis can distinguish between a foreign bear's gall and that of a US animal, which would be illegal, as it is illegal to sell wild animal parts in the US.

Other cases might involve species from abroad like analyzing ivory from elephants or walrus tusks, sea turtle shells, snake skins, etc. to determine where each came from, and when.

While we were at the lab, Warden Adam Kraft brought in samples of a coyote that had he believed had been illegally poisoned. Instruments such as a gas chromatograph can detect chemicals in a sample down to parts per billion.

I asked Dr. Rodzen how he fares in court cases when he testifies about DNA evidence. Rodzen replied that technology of DNA fingerprinting gets better and better. As a result, he seldom has to testify anymore since he can say that the chances of match being by chance are one in a billion. When defendants and their attorneys learn that state has DNA evidence that ties them to a crime, they tend to plead out in hopes of a better deal because the science is so solid.

John Dawson, a warden with DFG's Redding Office, says, "I've had many suspects confess to a poaching incident in the field after I tell them that we have the best forensic scientist in the nation who will be able to tell me the exact sex and the number of animals represented by a blood smear or meat sample."

California is not alone in DNA testing for wildlife. The Clark R. Bavin U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Lab, which opened in 1989, is located in Ashland, Oregon. Other wildlife forensic labs are located in Wyoming, Michigan, and Florida.

TV shows may have to condense time frames to keep the storyline moving, but rest assured, in real life the same methods you see on TV are now part of the tools that wildlife enforcement can use to nail poachers.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.