In Singapore, a forensics lab wields CSI-like tech against wildlife
Claire Turrell, Mongabay
May 20, 2022
“Initially we were all excited because we had intercepted a record-breaking
ivory shipment,” says veterinarian Charlene Fernandez of Singapore’s new
Centre for Wildlife Forensics. “But when we started carrying the tusks one
by one into this room to process, everyone suddenly became very quiet. A
lot of the researchers started leaving the room as they couldn’t take the
sight of the elephant graveyard in front of them.”
After a decade of working in veterinary pathology, it was the first time
that the Cornell alumna had seen anything so upsetting.
In July 2019, authorities in Singapore had seized 8.8 metric tons of ivory
en route to Vietnam aboard a shipment from the Democratic Republic of
Congo. Now, following the opening of the center in August 2021, it was the
job of Fernandez’s team to analyze it. What they didn’t realize at that
time was that their work would become part of a breakthrough study, which
used the same mode of forensic science adopted to arrest the Golden State
Killer. The U.S. serial killer and rapist, who was arrested in 2018 and
sentenced in 2020, was caught by using technology to trace family trees.
But instead of serial killers, the Singapore wildlife center’s DNA findings
would be used to catch poachers.
One-third of the world’s shipping containers pass through the port of
Singapore, so the city-state’s anti-poaching efforts are key in the fight
against wildlife trafficking.
After taking samples for research, the Singapore government destroyed the
8.8-metric-ton ivory haul on a live broadcast to show the poachers they
meant business. But they knew that they needed to do more.
“Apart from seizing, crushing and destroying, we need to contribute to the
international community somehow,” says Anna Wong, director of wildlife
trade at the government-run National Parks Board (NParks), who helped
spearhead the record seizure. “So that is why the Centre for Wildlife
Forensics was established to collect this vital data, which could be
disseminated to the source and destination countries so they can do their
part as well.”
The center aims to become the first laboratory of its kind in Asia that’s
approved by CITES, the global convention on the wildlife trade.
Forensics Used Against Wildlife Traffickers
Located in the northern farming region of Singapore, the state-of-the-art
lab is the antithesis of its leafy surrounds. Researchers are clothed head
to foot in PPE garb as they navigate what looks like a ship’s galley with
sliding glass doors marking the entrance to individual research labs.
Here, they analyze the flora and fauna found in seized shipments. The team
is supported by a K9 unit, which patrols Singapore’s borders and has been
trained to detect ivory and pangolin scales in shipments, and a catalog of
wood species housed at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The timber specimens
in this catalog, known as a xylarium, can be compared against seizures to
help identify suspect wood and stop illegal logging.
Each plant or animal sample brought to the center is processed the same
way. First, scientists treat it with liquid nitrogen to make it brittle,
and then use a magnetic compactor to reduce the sample to a powder. The
powder then goes on a journey along the white-walled corridor of
laboratories. A roboticized machine, the QIA Symphony, extracts DNA from
the powder — it can do 90 samples in 80 minutes — and then the DNA is
multiplied in the amplification room to aid testing.
If the sample is ivory, researchers then check the DNA against a genetic
reference map to confirm the species of elephant, and where it originated.
At less than a year old, the center is still making constant discoveries.
Not only have the researchers found they can extract DNA from samples
weighing as little as 2 grams (less than a tenth of an ounce), but they can
also remove DNA from decrepit artifacts, such as a 40-year-old whale shark.
While elephant ivory and pangolin seizures account for much of its
workload, the center has also received rhino horns, shark fins and sea
The team has continued to seek out more specialized equipment to speed up
the process. The quicker they can get results, the faster they can stop
traffickers, goes the thinking.
“Previously, when we had small seizures, we would have to send the samples
away to get them tested and verified so we could use the results in court,”
Wong says. “It could take two to three months to coordinate. Now we can
turn it around within days.”
Since the officially opening of the Centre for Wildlife Forensics in August
2021, 14 people have been arrested using evidence gathered by the lab, Wong
says. These arrests, all in China, stemmed from pangolin and ivory seizures
And many more suspected traffickers may soon follow, thanks to the lab’s
partnership with U.S. conservation biologist Samuel Wasser. A professor at
the University of Washington, whom The New York Times called “the Sherlock
Holmes of the wildlife trade,” Wasser has studied elephants for more than
20 years. In his lab in Seattle, he carries out forensic analysis using DNA
to determine the origins of seized ivory. He created the elephant genetic
reference map used by the Singapore lab, and can take a tusk from anywhere
in Africa and place it to within 290 kilometers (180 miles) of its origin.
Finding Criminal Organizations Like Links in a Chain
Wasser analyzed his first ivory seizure in Singapore in 2002. And it was
here that he made one of his biggest breakthroughs. When studying seized
shipments in 2015, he realized that a lot of the tusks didn’t have a pair,
so he and his team looked for them in other seizures made in Hong Kong,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. This allowed them to
connect the shipments. It also helped highlight the emergence of a new
smuggling hotspot in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area
(KAZA TFCA), which covers the border region between the Southern African
countries of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The KAZA TFCA
is home to 230,000 of the remaining 415,000 elephants in Africa. But
getting both tusks could sometimes prove difficult, as Wasser would need
each country to give him access to the shipments. Moreover, analyzing each
seizure can cost $50,000.
Then Wasser had another breakthrough.
In March 2022, Wasser published a study in Nature Human Behaviour,
co-authored by Wong and Fernandez, that showed they could use the same tool
that was used to catch the Golden State Killer to catch the criminal
syndicates trafficking wildlife. The tool is called familial searchers. To
catch the Golden State Killer, U.S. authorities took DNA from the crime
scene and compared against the criminal database to find a close relative.
Similarly, Wasser compared the DNA from seized ivory to link shipments.
“As females often stay in the family group for their entire life and males
leave, but don’t go that far, we were able to link dozens and dozens of
shipments to the same trafficking network,” Wasser says. “We were able to
pull together the whole criminal organization like links in a chain.”
The results are now part of ongoing US Department of Homeland Security
“If the criminals use U.S. currency, you can get to their bank accounts,
seize their assets and cut the legs out from underneath them,” Wasser says.
Wasser and the Singapore team are now furthering their research by creating
a genetic reference map for all eight pangolin species, since 25% of all
the large pangolin seizures are shipped with large ivory seizures.
“We are now figuring out how the trafficker accumulates all this material
from two species with drastically different life histories. If we can do
this, we get to uncover a lot of the strategies being used to move their
product,” Wasser says.
Scott Roberton, executive director for counter wildlife trafficking at the
Wildlife Conservation Society, calls the launch of the new forensic lab in
“The inclusion of forensics in strengthening the prosecution of wildlife
trafficking is vital,” he says. “Professionalizing how those cases can move
through the court and the judicial system is really important.”
Roberton, who has worked in conservation in Southeast Asia for 22 years,
says the COVID-19 pandemic, with its links to the wildlife trade, makes
action on wildlife trafficking all the more imperative.
“There has never been a more opportune moment for governments, society,
academics and media to focus in on wildlife trafficking,” he says. “There
is an undisputed clear link between the trafficking of wildlife and the
risk of future zoonotic diseases and pathogens emerging. Now is the time to