UK Scientists Put the Finger on the Illegal Wildlife Traffickers

A breakthrough technique by a UK university now enables those in the field to take fingerprints from trafficked animals – a key step in the battle against the illegal wildlife trade.

By Kieren Puffett
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:39 BST
Pangolin in the wild
Pangolin (phataginus tricuspid) also known as the scaly anteater is the world's only scaly mammal and the most trafficked animal.
Photograph by Tim Wacher_ZSL_lowres.jpg

A new forensic fingerprinting technique has been developed by a UK university in the fight against trafficked animals.

The new techniques will enable those in the field to lift fingerprints from trafficked animals providing evidence that can help prosecute those behind the illegal wildlife trade.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London), with support from the UK Border force, developed the technology with one particular animal in mind – the pangolin.

Pangolins – also known as scaly anteaters because of their appearance – are dwindling as a result of poaching, with around 300 poached every day, making these unusual animals the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

The pioneering technique allows rangers in the field to test pangolin scales for fingerprints. Capturing this type of evidence is vital in order to catch and prosecute those engaged in illegally trafficking these animals.
Photograph by University of Portsmouth

The new finger print technology uses gelatine lifters with a low-adhesive gelatine layer on one side, that lifts footwear marks, fingermarks and trace materials off various objects in criminal investigations.

In a preliminary trial, the researchers tested the usability of gelatine lifters for visualising finger marks on pangolin scales. Using 10 pangolin scales from several species, each scale was gripped by five participants.

The end results were extremely encouraging with 89 per cent of the visualised gelatine lifts examined producing clear ridge detail. This means that law enforcement agencies will, potentially, be able to use the mark to identify persons of interest who have come into contact with the scale.

Dr Nicholas Pamment, who runs the Wildlife Crime Unit at the University of Portsmouth, said: “This is a significant breakthrough for wildlife crime investigation. While forensic science techniques are being used as part of the investigation process, there is a lack of research looking at ‘what works’ in the context, or within the limitations of the wildlife crime investigation and in the environments where the investigations take place.

“What we have done is to create a quick, easy and usable method for wildlife crime investigation in the field to help protect these critically endangered mammals. It is another tool that we can use to combat the poaching and trafficking of wild animals.”

A baby African white-bellied tree pangolin hitches a ride on its mother at Pangolin Conservation, a nonprofit organisation in St. Augustine, Florida. This photo was originally published in "Documenting the World’s Animals, One Picture at a Time," in April 2016.
Photograph by Joël Sartore

The researchers have now developed gelatine lifter packs for Wildlife Rangers in Kenya and Cameroon to help in their fight against illegal poaching of pangolins. Each pack contains 10 gelatine lifters, scissors, insulating packs, evidence bags, a roller and a simple pictorial guide for the Rangers to follow. The field packs for the Kenyan wildlife service were initially provided for the examination of poached elephant ivory and dead elephants killed by poachers.

Grant Miller, Head of the UK’s National CITES Enforcement Team, said: “We know how prized pangolins are by those engaged in wildlife crime. I am delighted that Border Force has been able to play its part in the development of this method of lifting fingermarks from pangolin scales, technology which will help bring poachers and smugglers to justice."

Read More

You might also like

How Simple Forensic Fingerprinting Could Help the World's Most Trafficked Mammal
How trafficked cheetah cubs move from the wild and into your Instagram feed
South Africa plans to end controversial captive lion industry
Wildlife seizures are down – and in the fallout of COVID-19, an illicit trade boom may be coming
Monkeys still forced to pick coconuts in Thailand despite controversy

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved