Wednesday, December 14, 2005

DNA profiling snags animal poachers

About ten years ago, when I wrote my article on DNA profiling (University of Chicago Roundtable), there were suggestions of the use of DNA profiling of animals concerning animal poaching.

In 2005, we see some discussion:

When two deer ranchers began feuding over whether one had stolen a prized buck from the other, Burkett turned to a different type of DNA analysis: the growing field of wildlife genetics. DNA tests ordered by Burkett showed that the buck's genetic profile was a likely match for DNA taken from antlers that the missing deer had shed before he was stolen. Burkett eventually won a larceny conviction against the rancher who had wound up with the buck.

The case illustrated how prosecutors and game wardens across the USA increasingly are turning to DNA analysis to catch poachers of deer, elk, bear and even exotic sea turtles. Advances in research have made DNA - which holds an individual's unique genetic code and is present in blood and other biological material - one of history's most significant advances in solving crimes among humans. Now, research into the genetic makeup of wild and exotic animals by conservation scientists, disease researchers and specialty labs is creating a new front for DNA's crime-solving potential.

Testing expands

During the past year, authorities from Pennsylvania to California have extracted DNA profiles from antlers, animals' remains, blood spots on hunters' pants and even homemade hot dogs to track poachers and sellers of illegal animal products. Animal DNA also is being used to solve crimes among humans: In Pennsylvania this month, Lawrence Cseripko, a hunter from North Union Township, was convicted for the 1997 murder of another hunter after DNA found in deer steaks in Cseripko's freezer matched deer DNA found at the crime scene.

Much of the research into animal DNA has focused on the search for genes in animals that seem to promote or stymie disease, in the hope of finding cures for humans. Other research has been aimed at safeguarding endangered species and verifying the bloodlines of race horses, show dogs, and deer and other game that are bred especially for hunting.

Such research has been used recently to help trap violators of hunting laws:

• In August, a Lewisburg, Ohio, man was fined $695, was ordered to forfeit his shotgun and had to pay a $450 DNA-testing fee after he was convicted of hunting out of season. The man claimed that a deer found on his property had been shot legally in Indiana. Tests on blood and deer hair found in a spot on the Ohio side of the border matched that of the poached deer.

• In July, two brothers in Duchesne, Utah, were convicted of illegally shooting two elk after DNA from the animals' remains matched antlers that the pair had taken as trophies. Another poaching case in Duchesne, in which the evidence includes a DNA profile from elk hair on a defendant's pickup, is awaiting trial.

Wildlife DNA also has been useful in smuggling cases. In Miami three years ago, tests done by University of Florida researcher Ginger Clark determined that rare sea turtle eggs being sold by restaurants and grocery stores in South Florida as aphrodisiacs had originated in Nicaragua. Selling the eggs from the endangered species is a federal crime. Tracking them to Nicaragua enabled authorities to tack on federal smuggling charges.

Animal DNA testing "is a huge area for us, and it's only likely to get bigger," says Mary Curtis, DNA lab analyst at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore. "Every day we're learning more, which is a good thing, because we're being asked to do more and more testing on a variety" of animals.

The deer-theft case in Pennsylvania illustrates how useful animal DNA can be in prosecuting wildlife offenses.

In October 1999, a 2-year-old buck known to its owners as Goliath was stolen from his pen at a breeding ranch in Clarion County, Pa. Goliath's owners later testified that they had planned to sell his semen to breeders. They estimated his worth at more than $100,000.

Goliath or Hercules?

In 2003, visitors to Jeff Spence's deer farm in neighboring Jefferson County came across a buck that Spence had named Hercules. They thought the buck looked like Goliath, based on pictures that had been circulated after Goliath was stolen. Their suspicions led Burkett to order the DNA tests that showed that Hercules was indeed the missing Goliath.

A second DNA test suggested that a deer sold by Spence likely was Goliath's offspring. Spence was convicted of stealing the deer after a weeklong trial in October. Pennsylvania guidelines call for him to receive a prison term of up to 16 months when he is sentenced Jan. 3, Burkett says.

Some wildlife research done for scientific purposes has been adapted to crime fighting.

In Frederick, Md., Stephen O'Brien, head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute, has analyzed the genome of cheetahs, tigers and other wild cats looking for clues to cancer. He also has compiled a database of the genetic characteristics of domestic cats. The Justice Department, which commissioned the project, believes DNA from cat hair found at crime scenes and on victims' and suspects' clothing can be used to solve crimes.


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