CSI India: DNA Evidence Helps Convict Tiger Poachers

Tiger killings are exploding, but the prison sentences could send a message.

(Photo: STR New/Reuters)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

An Indian court has sentenced three tiger poachers to five years in prison in what has been called the fastest conviction of its kind in that country.

Authorities arrested the poachers in March 2013 on suspicion of killing a tiger at Melghat Tiger Reserve, one of the oldest and most important tiger parks in India. Police collected fingernail clippings from the men arrested, and subsequent DNA tests revealed that the blood and flesh under their nails matched that of the tigers found at the scene of the crime.

At least 39 tigers were killed in India in 2013, the highest number in seven years, leading the Wildlife Protection Society of India to declare a "poaching crisis." The animals' skins can sell for thousands of dollars. Their organs, fur, whiskers, and blood are destined for China or Vietnam, where they are used as components of traditional Asian medicine to "cure" everything from fevers to baldness. The illegal trade of wildlife and other environmental crimes are worth $213 billion a year, according to a report released this week by the United Nations and Interpol.

The DNA-based convictions are notable for India, a country where many wildlife rangers lack the equipment and weapons to protect tigers or even themselves. "India has seen forest guards running around in their bare feet,” said John Goodrich, senior tiger program director for Panthera, the big-cat conservation organization. “In other countries it tends to be even worse."

Panthera and other organizations have helped provide equipment and law enforcement training to rangers. "You can't expect them to be doing what we see on CSI," Goodrich said, "but you can teach them these very basics and get them the equipment, the sample collection containers and swabs."

Although Panthera does not operate in the area near the Melghat Tiger Preserve, the organization has taught rangers at other tiger habitats advanced crime scene investigation techniques. "We try to train people up in these techniques so they can detect tiger poaching, or when they catch a poacher they do things like take fingernail scrapings or at the poaching site, DNA samples, so they can get these convictions," he said.

A fourth suspect’s trial is pending. Three additional men, who had been charged with aiding the poachers, have been acquitted, although prosecutors can appeal that acquittal.

Goodrich praised the convictions, which he says occur too rarely. "In the past, throughout tiger range countries, people get arrested, and then they just get set free a few days later," he said. "I just came back from Bangladesh, where exactly that happened."

Although poaching has increased in India, Goodrich praised the country's record. "They have over half of the world's tigers and some very well-protected populations," he said, noting that India now has 45 tiger reserves.

Even with that protection, tigers remain at risk. "There are over 100,000 square kilometers of tiger habitat out there, but less than 10 percent of it is inhabited by tigers,” said Goodrich. “The only reason they're not there is because they're getting killed.”

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