Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Long-tailed pangolin, Manis tetradactyla, D.R. Congo
Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection

How Simple Forensic Fingerprinting Could Help the World's Most Trafficked Mammal

Researchers have developed a simple, easy-to-use method for lifting fingerprints from pangolin scales.

British researchers have tested a method to lift fingerprints from the scales of pangolins, an endangered ant-eating animal believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. Using standard gelatin lifters—small sheets with adhesive on one side commonly used by crime scene investigators to collect fingerprints and other trace evidence—researchers with the University of Portsmouth in England and the nonprofit Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have successfully lifted clear fingerprints off pangolin scales. Showing that this is possible means that law enforcement around the world could use this simple technology to identify the poachers and traffickers who have handled pangolin scales.

During the past decade, some one million pangolins have been poached and trafficked, primarily for use in traditional Asian medicines and as a delicacy at restaurants in Asia. The four Asian pangolin species are considered critically endangered, and the four African species are at risk, especially as traders have begun targeting them now that the Asian species are harder to come by. The international commercial trade in all pangolins and their parts is banned.

“To our knowledge, no one is using the gel [lifters] to look at wildlife crime, and this is the first time evidential level fingermarks have been obtained from pangolin scales,” Christian Plowman, a former New Scotland Yard detective and law enforcement advisor at ZSL, said in an email. Plowman and his former boss at the Metropolitan Police, Brian Chappell, who is now a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, came up with the idea over coffee.

“We were discussing a simple, easy-to-use method, suitable for a wide range of geographical environments, and with as little complication as possible,” Plowman said.

Pangolins: The Most Trafficked Mammal You've Never Heard Of

If you’ve never heard of the pangolin, you’re not alone. This shy creature is the world’s most trafficked mammal—with more than one million pangolins poached in the past decade.

Fingerprinting kits that use powder, brushes, and tape were potentially too cumbersome and time consuming for rangers in the field who need to get in and out quickly to minimize exposure to poachers who may still be nearby, Chappell said. “Why don’t we try the gel?” they thought.

The technique was tested by researchers at the university who obtained pangolin scales from the UK Border Force. The researchers had several people handle pangolin scales, used gelatin lifters to get images of the fingerprints, and ran them through a scanner designed to read gelatin prints.

Initial results were promising. Nearly 90 percent of the lifts produced clear and detailed images of fingerprints on pangolin scales from several species. Wildlife rangers in Cameroon and Kenya are now testing it in the field. Earlier, Kenyan rangers had used gel lifter kits to get fingerprints off ivory, and Portsmouth researchers have also been able to get fingerprints off bird feathers, Chappell and Plowman said.

Jac Reed, a senior forensics technician at Portsmouth and a former crime scene investigator who worked on this project, said that part of what makes it so valuable is that it uses a “low-level technology.”

“It is also important for law enforcement in developing countries who may not have access to more advanced technologies and expensive forensic equipment,” Reed said in a statement.

“This new development is a promising tool for combating the illegal trade in pangolins,” said Paul Thomson, a conservation biologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Save Pangolins, who was not involved in the project. It could help lead investigators to poachers or middlemen, but he emphasized that bringing down the crime bosses behind these networks is critical. “We need to see advanced techniques like this applied to every step in the chain of wildlife crime,” he said in an email.

Traffickers are quick learners, and if this technique is implemented widely, it’s possible those who handle scales will simply start wearing gloves, Chappell acknowledged. But beyond the investigative and prosecution potential of this technique is the proof of concept that there are forensic techniques that already exist that can applied to wildlife crime.

We’ve got to keep the momentum going to show that there are people using more innovative techniques to prevent and detect trafficking, he said.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.