USAID and ARREST Forensic Training of ASEAN and China Scientists

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22-26 July 2013, Wildlife scientists and experts from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and the PR of China are finishing a week long forensic training course which was held at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory (NFWFL) in Ashland, OR. The team of instructors from the lab was led by Dr. Mary Burnham Curtis, Supervisory Forensic Scientist of the Genetics Section.

The USFWS Forensic Laboratory, a state of the art facility and the only one of its kind in the world, provided an excellent environment for the visiting scientists to focus on many areas of wildlife forensics. USFWS Laboratory wildlife forensic experts in genetics, morphology and evidence documentation, handling and storage sections of the lab have worked with the participating scientists throughout the week and provided practical “hands on” application, practice and demonstration.

This wildlife forensics training course, supported by USAID, ARREST, ASEAN-WEN, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement and facilitated by FREELAND Foundation, was based on the training needs and requests made by forensic scientists from ASEAN-WEN, China and the USA. These training needs were identified during a five country needs assessment conducted in 2012 by forensic wildlife scientists from Malaysia and the USFWS NFWFL. Based on the findings of the assessment team and input from their fellow scientists, the USFWS forensic lab organized a curriculum and training session which concentrated on the specific needs identified by each of the five countries.

The week long training began with lecture, demonstration and exercises on the importance of maintaining and preserving the chain of custody documentation when receiving, handling, testing, analysis and storing evidence in the laboratory. The importance of documenting the evidence chain of custody for successful prosecution was stressed. After the discussion the participants engaged in an evidence transfer, receiving and transport exercise. Participants examined various pieces of “mock” evidence and asked to point out how the chain of custody, documentation and/or sealing procedure was improper.

As the week continued, participating scientists examined various types of wildlife products, including rhino horn, elephant ivory, antler/bone, sea turtle leather and fur seal leather and were shown how to effectively extract DNA from these types of complex wildlife parts and products. Participants received information, discussed and practiced how to utilize validated and standardized procedures and protocols for the extraction of DNA. The participating scientists also observed the subsampling of evidence and why the first steps of DNA extraction take place in a dedicated room.

The subsampling discussion and exercises were followed by the scientists using one of the DNA extraction platforms available at the laboratory. Scientists were also introduced to the quantitation platforms. A field trip to a wildlife rehabilitation facility was followed by a presentation by the Chemistry section on timber species identification and origin inference using DART time of flight mass spectrometry. Next, the group and the Lab scientists discussed practical Forensic issues of quality control, validation protocols, reference material versus Genbank sequences, cross-amplification, troubleshooting, data base and primer design. All of these processes followed the best practices guidelines by the Society of Wildlife Forensic Scientists.

In addition to the DNA focus, the NFWFL morphology section provided information on reptile identification and mammal hair identification. Information and examples of the importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), both in the field and in the laboratory setting, was discussed as well as proper safety protocols and procedures to use when handling hazardous materials and evidence samples from possibly diseased animals.

Dr. Sam Wasser, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology, spoke with the group about his group’s ivory geographical origin inference work, which uses elephant DNA to determine the region of origin that an ivory product or elephant part may have originated from.