Use forensic science to drag Mugalan’s killers into court

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Top expert urges rethink on wildlife crime investigation. Published on SundayTimes on 09.12.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181209/news/use-forensic-science-to-drag-mugalans-killers-into-court-323990.html

[Note: this was published alongside of article investigating the slain of the Udawalawe Tusker ‘Mugalan’ http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181209/news/investigations-reveal-elephant-killed-for-its-tusks-2-suspects-remanded-323993.html]

Investigations into crimes against animals should be handled as forensically as normal criminal investigations, a top animal crimes expert urged as sadness and anger swept the nation over the killing of the Udawalawe tusker, Mugalan, last week.

Ravi Perera is regularly engaged in solving wildlife crime cases in Africa, especially in Kenya

The maximum penalty for the culprits was urged.

“A proper crime scene investigation is the first step in tackling wildlife crimes,” said Ravi Perera, an international expert in wildlife crime who has offered, using his Serendipity Wildlife Foundation, to train Sri Lankan personnel to investigate such incidents.

Mr. Perera has nearly 25 years’ experience in forensic investigation, with special expertise in wildlife crime. Now based in the United States, he is regularly engaged in solving wildlife crime cases in Africa, especially in Kenya where organised gangs of poachers hunt elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns.

“While the method of investigation is the same, a wildlife crime scene is very different to everyday crime scenes in cities’ Mr. Perera explained:

investigators are dealing with possibly a decomposing carcass or a carcass that has been partially or completely devoured by another animal.

“Very often, we have to work in harsh surroundings, rough terrain, and even in dangerous situations where elephants and rhinos could return to the location to protect the dead,” Mr. Perera said.

While a crime scene in urban areas could be sometimes worked with one or two personnel, a crime scene in the wild would require armed guards to secure the scene as well as personnel to take photographs, gather evidence and search the crime scene.

The crime scene itself is much larger in the wild, where a suspect’s shoe or footprints or a tyre track from a vehicle could be located several hundred meters away.

The animal could have been shot at one place but have succumbed to its wounds a distance away. The location where the animal was shot is as important as the place it died as key evidence could be found at either location or in between them.

“In shooting cases such as Mugalan’s it is important to focus on key evidence such as the projectiles (bullets) recovered from the carcass. If the projectile is not severely damaged, there is equipment in forensic labs to determine the type of weapon it was fired from,” the expert said.

Most projectiles found in animals remain intact due to body mass and bones unless there is an exit wound and the projectile is unrecoverable.

Mugalan shot at close range in Udawalawe. Pix by Rahul S. Hettiarachchi

“We also search for the casings that have been ejected from the weapon. Should a weapon be recovered, these casings can be matched in the lab to a test-fired casing from the weapon. Very often, a perfect match is enough to convict a criminal.

“If a suspect is found, a suspect’s clothing that he wore at the time of the shooting can be examined for gunshot residue,” Mr. Perera said.

Poachers in Sri Lanka also use wire snares and “hakka patas” – improvised explosive devices embedded in food that blow the animal’s head apart.

“Unfortunately, obtaining evidence from snares is almost impossible,” Mr. Perera said. “You have catch the culprit in possession of the device to even consider prosecution.

“Hakka patas too would be very hard to analyse for evidence as it is often discovered after the damage is done, and gathering DNA evidence to match to the suspect is impossible due to the fact that it has been severely contaminated with the baited fruit and is then mixed with the elephant’s saliva and other body fluids – not to mention that the explosion further destroys your evidence.”

Mr. Perera, who works with international agencies in curbing wildlife crime, raised the need for Sri Lankan authorities to use new tools and technology.

“Forensic tools and technology have increased in leaps and bounds within the last eight to 10 years,” he said. “When it was previously impossible to do so, presumptive blood tests, gunshot residue-testing, thermal imaging, infra-red photography, fingerprint analysis and much more can now be done onsite and the results obtained within a few minutes.

“Forensic crime labs are also equipped with laser imaging and various light sources to analyse fingerprints and machines to process DNA and obtain results in about an hour,” he said.

Ravi with the last remaining Northern White rhino Sudan before its death

How the public can aid investigations
People often gather at the site of an animal killing to satisfy their curiosity but wildlife expert Ravi Perera said vital evidence is destroyed when the site is indiscriminately trampled over.

Mr. Perera urged the public to support wildlife crime investigations by not disturbing the evidence.

“Our aim is to prevent contamination of the crime scene. If a crime scene is contaminated, it could compromise the entire case,” he said.

This is the reason that we secure an urban crime scene with yellow tape – to keep investigators in and keep all others out.

“Every single item located in that crime scene is regarded as important. Cigarette butts, discarded and crushed receipts, bus and train tickets, clothing, blood, water bottles, tyre tracks, shoe/foot prints and drink cans can be potential evidence. A receipt from a shop (with a date and time printed) can be used to identify a suspect on the shop’s video surveillance system, and then we have a ‘face’ to work with.

“In Sri Lanka, I see crime scenes totally destroyed when villagers and curious onlookers come right up to an animal carcass, and sometimes even touch it. It is important that a secured perimeter be established before work commences at the scene.”

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