Genetic Forensics: Streamlining Poaching Investigations 


Sam Wasser, Scientific Director, Center for Environmental Forensic Science

Mary Kuhner, Research Scientist, Center for Environmental Forensic Science

Ryan Horwitz, Research Scientists, Center for Environmental Forensics

SSEC Engineers

Niki Burggraf, Senior Research Software Engineer

Poaching remains a critical threat to biodiversity worldwide, driving numerous species to the brink of extinction. University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science (CEFS) has a history of pioneering forensic techniques to tackle this crisis. Among its notable contributions are advancements in genetic forensics, which have revolutionized the field of wildlife crime investigation. 

Central to CEFS’s approach is the application of genetic analysis to identify and track illicit wildlife products. By extracting DNA from confiscated specimens, researchers can determine the species, origin, and in certain cases, individual identity of the animals involved. This innovative technique has proven instrumental in linking poached products to their source populations and facilitating law enforcement efforts. 

Building upon CEFS’s tradition of innovation, SSEC is developing a secure online portal which will enable national labs in Africa and SE Asia to submit genotypes acquired from seized ivory for rapid analysis. This collaborative effort brings together expertise in software engineering and wildlife forensics to create a powerful tool which allows for the uploading, analysis, and visualization of genetic data from poached specimens. 

Through novel applications of genetics methodologies and analyses such as Smoothed and Continuous Assignments (SCAT) to make geolocation estimates, users will be served a variety of insights. The portal will enable seized tusks to be compared to a DNA reference database to determine geographic origin, and to the seized ivory database to identify potential matches with tusks from the same individual or close relatives in other seizures.  This approach allows countries to maintain ownership of their samples while still contributing the data to a larger transnational crime database. It also eliminates the time and expense of exporting ivory, a controlled material. 

Looking ahead, SSEC and CEFS are committed to further enhancing the portal through API integration, enabling seamless connectivity between users and existing genetic forensics tools and databases.