How Virginia Tech researchers are combatting wildlife trafficking around the globe

Posted at 1:52 PM, Feb 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-07 13:52:37-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- In an effort to combat the challenges of wildlife trafficking, researchers in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment will be getting a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement affairs.

With the grant money researchers will be tasked with developing a state-of-the-art wildlife forensics laboratory in Kasane, Botswana. That will then be operated collaboratively with the Botswana government.

In Botswana, researchers say traffickers target animals like pangolins for their scales. "For traffickers of illegal wildlife, those scales are a unique and valuable currency, capable of moving untraced across national borders and a significant driver of criminal activities that threaten both wildlife populations and human communities around the globe," Virginia Tech explained in a press release.

The school's new wildlife forensic laboratory will allow researchers and law enforcement to rapidly use DNA evidence to investigate and prosecute wildlife trafficking in Botswana. "The grant also will support a novel experiential learning program that will launch Botswana’s multiagency wildlife crime training and response units: the Elite Team," according to Virginia Tech.

Professor Kathleen Alexander is the lead on the project and founded the Centre for African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use in 2001. The center, Virginia Tech, and the Republic of Botswana are all partnering for the laboratory.

“This laboratory and the associated training programs will take a unique and partnered approach with the government of Botswana to advance wildlife security in the region,” said Alexander. “Without DNA forensics in northern Botswana, investigations and prosecutorial functions are hampered. This laboratory and the development of the Botswana government’s Elite Team exemplifies Botswana’s commitment to innovation and leadership in fighting wildlife crime and securing conservation of natural resources in the region.”

Another challenge according to experts is finding out the source of trafficked animal products. This wildlife forensic center will be able to determine if materials were harvested from wild animals or those in captive populations.

“Wildlife trafficking is escalating across the globe and is increasingly seen as a threat to conservation and local livelihoods,” said Alexander, the principal investigator on the grant. “But more significantly, we’re seeing that wildlife trafficking is part of an integrated system that allows criminal syndicates to operate and grow. Tackling wildlife crime is not just about conservation related impacts, it’s about national and global security.”

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, illegal wildlife trade is one of the greatest threats to many charismatic animal species around the world and brings profits between $7.8 billion and $10 billion each year.

"This illegal trade has impacts on the biodiversity of species as well as human and animal health," according to Virginia Tech, "The illegal trade of wildlife presents a risk of zoonotic disease spread, and the transfer of funds through criminal organizations carries significant national security risks."

The in-progress laboratory is the latest collaboration between Virginia Tech and the government of Botswana. In March of 2023, His Excellency Eric Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi, the president of Botswana, became the first international head of state to visit the Blacksburg campus.

Do you know about a good news story happening in your community? Click here to email and the CBS 6 News team.

SHARE on social media to SPREAD the WORD!

EAT IT, VIRGINIA restaurant news and interviews



Watch 'The Jennifer Hudson Show' weekdays at 3 p.m. on CBS 6!

📱 Download CBS 6 News App
The app features breaking news alerts, live video, weather radar, traffic incidents, closings and delays and more.