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A rhino with a bullet hole in its head, a poisoned giraffe and a mutilated lion are all crime scenes you might find at the Wildlife Forensics Academy (WFA), an hour's drive north of Cape Town in South Africa.

On a mission to combat poaching, the WFA recreates wildlife crimes in a warehouse In addition, students and rangers wearing protective suits are taught how to handle evidence.

Wildlife crimes – including animal trafficking and poaching – are on the rise around the world and pose a major threat to our planet's biodiversity. In Africa, rhinos are a major target. Around 10,000 animals have been lost to poaching in the last decade, most of them in South Africa. In 2023, nearly 500 rhinos were poached in the country, with more than 300 of them in KwaZulu-Natal province, where the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is located. Yet the province recorded only 49 related arrests and confiscated just 13 firearms.

By providing forensic training, Greg Simpson, co-founder of the WFA, hopes to increase the success rate of convictions. Often, he says, wildlife crimes happen in remote areas without witnesses and first responders can inadvertently disturb the crime scene and contaminate evidence. As a result, the offender is not caught or punished.

“It's really important to give people skills that will enable them to gather evidence … that can be used in investigations and hopefully eventually lead to prosecution,” he says.

The facility tries to make the training experience as realistic as possible. Life-sized taxidermied animals are used, and some are marked with bloody wounds made from red paint. Aside from the corrugated iron walls and roof, the warehouse looks like a typical arid African landscape, with sandy soil and scattered plants. There is a poacher's house and truck just waiting to be searched and swabbed for fingerprints, and footprints lie on the ground just waiting to be measured and identified.

Once the crime scene has been investigated, students are shown how to chemically analyze the evidence in an on-site laboratory. The class culminates in a mock courtroom where they practice presenting the evidence in court and undergo cross-examination.

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South Africa's CSI for Wildlife

“The purpose of cross-examination is to test the credibility and trustworthiness of evidence. And if you don't pass that, the court may not accept your evidence,” says Phil Snijman, WFA's education director and former prosecutor and prosecutor.

Fingerprints, DNA samples, ballistics (when a gun is matched to a cartridge) and shoe prints cannot be considered in court if they are not properly sealed, photographed or documented, he explains. And while he doesn't expect the course to turn students and rangers into forensic experts, he believes it will help them properly secure evidence if they ever find themselves first on a crime scene.

Founded in 2022, the WFA attracts university students, such as those from veterinary medicine or biomedicine, and game rangers from around the world to its one- to four-week courses. Around 200 people are expected to be trained this year. One of them is Leita Mkhabela, a ranger with the all-female anti-poaching unit Black Mamba, which operates in the Greater Kruger, a collection of private game reserves in northeastern South Africa, and who took part in a course in April.

“This is something we experience every day, rhino poaching is very high here,” she says. “We have so many poachers who have been released in court because rangers did not collect enough evidence. It is really important that rangers have this knowledge.”

Mkhabela wants to pass on everything she has learned to her colleagues so they can use the techniques in the bush. She believes that a higher conviction rate will have a deterrent effect on poachers.

Students are taught how to handle evidence and document it so that it can be used in court.

There are indications that the training courses lead to convictions. According to the WFA, a ranger reported that since taking part in the course, he was able to detect traces of poison at a crime scene involving wild dogs. The police are therefore confident that they will be able to arrest and convict the poachers.

More forensic labs have been set up across the continent, including in Malawi and Botswana. An initiative by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) held four workshops in 2023 and early 2024, training 80 rangers, investigators and intelligence officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service to collect and present evidence in court. In the first quarter of this year, IFAW reported 32 wildlife crime cases brought to court and 24 defendants awaiting arraignment. Previously, these cases would have been dropped due to lack of evidence, it said.

Kevin Pretorius, director of the Green Law Foundation and a practising lawyer in the High Court of South Africa who specialises in criminal and environmental law and is not involved with the WFA, says one of the biggest obstacles to convicting wildlife crimes is the “admissibility of the evidence”, particularly since the charge must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

“Educating a group of people who understand the value of evidence and know that a crime scene tells a story and that that story can help the investigator connect the perpetrator to a crime is always valuable,” he says.

The WFA's main role is to support law enforcement, but it also aims to raise awareness of the dangers posed by the illegal wildlife trade and why it should be treated as a priority. “It threatens biodiversity and human health,” says Simpson. “If we can improve knowledge about it, that would be really valuable.”

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