July, 2012

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Investigations

Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • From the beat to Bangkok

    I'm in my hotel room in a very hot and muggy Bangkok with the sounds of a 10 million-strong bustling city going on around me. When I started work as a Police Officer, at the tender age of 22, little did I realise how my journey would lead to the exciting work of the RSPB Investigations section.

    Furthermore, I certainly would not have believed that some 28 years later I would be attending an international conference in Thailand to talk about the use of forensic evidence in the investigation of wildlife crime.

    During my police service I had a regular involvement with the usual forensic techniques when attending burglaries and other crime scenes. When I arrived at the RSPB, I found they had already been using a variety of forensics methods to investigate wildlife crime. Of most interest was an investigation they started just before I arrived.

    Blood samples had just been taken from some goshawks held in captivity by a falconer in Liverpool. DNA testing showed that the four offspring were not related to their declared 'mother'.

    In 1992, this resulted in the first ever wildlife DNA conviction in the UK and was in fact the last private prosecution ever brought by the RSPB. Though the offender only received a derisory fine, it set in place a chain of events that would keep me very busy for the next few years.

    With my own university background in biochemistry and interest in forensics, I was keen to get involved in this work and initiated and assisted with a number of DNA-based enquiries to check the captive breeding of people keeping raptors in captivity.

    Since 1982, there had been a government registration scheme for people keeping captive-bred birds of prey and this was intended to prevent the laundering of birds taken from the wild. However, for those in the know it was quite easy to get eggs or chicks from a wild nest and simply claim they had been bred in captivity, get them registered and sell them.

    Whilst the registration scheme seemed to have little deterrent on people stealing birds of prey from the wild, its existence later became vital to the use of DNA testing. It ensured birds were uniquely marked, could be physically located and we had details of the 'declared' family relationships between birds. This information was all essential to get the necessary blood samples from the birds and allow the geneticists to do their work and test these declared relationships with DNA analysis.

    We were fortunate that around that time the Department of the Environment (a predecessor of Defra) had invested money in developing DNA technology in raptors and allowed us to use the expertise being developed at Nottingham University.

    This work led to numerous convictions and showed what the RSPB and others had long suspected - that there was widespread laundering of wild-taken peregrines and goshawks into the captive market.

    We also saw a reduction in raids on wild peregrine nests and a fall in captive breeding success as it appeared some people decided dealing in wild birds was no longer worth the risk. In my 20 years, this has been one of the biggest successes in wildlife crime enforcement in the UK and a fantastic example of how forensic evidence can be effectively used.

    A couple of the cases in particular were very high profile with two men receiving custodial sentences for laundering a large number of peregrines. I believe the high profile nature of these and a few other wildlife cases were instrumental in the government in setting up the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW) in the mid 1990s.

    This brought together statutory agencies and NGOs to work together to tackle wildlife crime. A PAW Forensic Working Group (FWG) was also set up and with my background in the use of DNA and other forensic techniques in wildlife crime investigation, I was lucky enough to be was invited to join along with individuals and scientists from various backgrounds.

    Since that time, the group has sought to assist statutory agencies to use forensics methods in wildlife crime and has identified new areas of research to tackle existing and emerging problems. This work has helped and encouraged the wider use of forensics in the UK.

    The RSPB and others had hoped that Defra would expand the registration scheme to make people accountable for holding other species of high conservation concern, such as some of the critically-endangered parrots. This would give us the opportunity to develop new DNA testing method to check any suspicious captive breeding claims.

    Ironically, despite the fantastic success of those early cases and further substantial financial support for further development of DNA testing in raptors in 2004, Defra then set about dismantling some of the registration scheme following a long and fairly acrimonious consultation process ending in 2008. This was despite advice from the police, RSPB and even their own scientific advisors, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. This was really a lost opportunity and one of the most disappointing failures by the government after all that initial hard-won success.

    However, one consolation that had emerged was in 2004 when geneticists Dr Robert Ogden and Dr Ross McEwing, then at Bangor University, got involved with the FWG. They had independently set about trying to promote the use of DNA testing in wildlife crime enforcement and had obvious value to the work of the FWG. Their drive and enthusiasm has been immensely impressive and they have helped instigate and drive forward a whole range of research and initiatives to improve the ability to use DNA forensics in wildlife cases in the UK and internationally.

    They set up the TRACE Wildlife Forensics network, a not-for-profit organisation, to take forward this work and were instrumental in the setting up of a DNA forensics laboratory in Scotland offering free genetic testing for all Scottish police forces in wildlife cases. Internationally they have been very active with research work on rhino and other endangered species.

    In 2009, TRACE obtained funding from the UK Darwin Initiative supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. This was a three-year project in partnership with TRAFFIC South East Asia to form a Wildlife Forensic Network to support The Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN –WEN).

    South-east Asia is a key battleground in the fight against the illegal trafficking of the worlds most endangered species. It is a consumer and supplier of items from tiger products to tropical hardwoods, and also a transit point, for example for poached rhino horn being smuggled from Africa to China and Vietnam.

    The RSPB is heavily involved with international conservation, including work in Asia on the amazing Harapan Forest Project in Sumatra. Whilst deforestation and habitat loss remain the biggest threats to biodiversity in Indonesia and other parts of the world, issues of illegal poaching and trade are also highly relevant to species like the highly-endangered Sumatran tiger.

    The stakes for everyone could not be higher and wildlife forensics, particularly DNA testing, will have an increasing part to play in effective enforcement. The ASEAN Wildlife Forensic Network project has helped set up and improve wildlife DNA forensics testing facilities in several Asian countries and provided training for the collection of evidence by the law enforcement agencies.

    At the conference, it was very humbling to see just the amount of work and energy that individuals and governments have put into the project. Whilst there is a long way to go, law enforcers are already using these new and developing forensic facilities. The laboratories are involved in cross-working and developing new and more effective forensic tests.

    I would like to think that work over many years by the RSPB in using and promoting various forensics methods to tackle wildlife crime in the UK had perhaps played a small part in getting events moving in other parts of the world.

    Whether countries around the world can collaborate effectively to save charismatic megafauna like the tiger remains to be seen. However, the impact that even small UK funded projects can potentially achieve when driven by committed individuals at a tiny organisation like TRACE is astonishing. This should give hope to us all of what could be achieved if governments could also make the necessary commitments of political will and necessary resources.

  • Special cases

    I’m not an Investigations Officer, but I do consider myself to be in a privileged position. Late last year I became the RSPB’s Head of Species & Habitat Conservation, resulting in me taking over the responsibility for the UK Investigations team.

    Now, having worked for the RSPB for over 12 years, I felt I knew what they did. But it was only when I got to see it up close that I realised the extent of what they get involved with. I think it takes a special type of person to be an investigations officer.

    Dedicated

    You really need to be dedicated (and the RSPB is full of dedicated people), but few of us would be able to withstand the rigour of what they have to do. Their duties range from covert operations - staking out a site sometime for days on end to catch a wildlife criminal in the act - assisting the police, and standing up for wildlife in court under intense cross examination.

     When you talk to these guys, they’re unassuming, but their dedication and their passion shine through. They want to stop bad people doing bad things to wildlife. Repeatedly, they see bird of prey persecution up close and in the raw – a poisoned golden eagle... a shot buzzard... a trapped peregrine... the list goes on: and, that happens all-too often.Peregrine. Image by Ben Hall (www,rspb-images.com)

    Looking over their shoulder

    Of course, shooting, trapping and poisoning are just a few examples of the devastating crimes these magnificent birds face, and the people who perpetrate these crimes do it often with a sense of impunity. They think that because these birds can often occupy remote areas, their horrific crimes will be out of sight and out of mind.

    Well, I’m proud to work for an organisation who has a team of dedicated investigators who ensure the criminals should always be looking over their shoulder, and an organisation which stands up for birds of prey, rare wildlife and habitats, ensuring criminality is exposed and doesn't remain ‘out of mind’.

    Let us know

    We receive many tip offs from the public. If you think you’ve witnessed an incident of wildlife crime, please contact us. For advice on how to report a suspected wildlife crime see our website.