Scottish scientists announced this week that they have found a way to catch poachers by the DNA they leave behind on deer carcasses -- or actually, deer parts.
Scientists at the University of Strathclyde worked with a forensic scientist at the Scottish Police Services Authority to come up with the methodology, which is believed to be the first time anyone has been able to extract enough human DNA from an animal carcass to identify the killer.
This is significant not just because it's never been done before, but because typically little is left of a deer carcass after a poacher is done with it -- so there's little human DNA.
Also, as Dr. Shanan Tobe, a Research Fellow in the university's Center for Forensic Science, said: "There are particular problems with deer poaching because deer can be legally hunted in season, and identifying deer alone would not show whether or not they had been killed in the course of poaching."
The research started with James Govan, the forensic scientist with the Scottish police. According to the BBC, he approached the university because he wanted to see if there was a way to identify poisoners of birds of prey. But the scientists there thought it would be better to start with deer because they would have higher chance of obtaining better human DNA samples.
Tobe said: "Our research has picked up DNA at very low levels, and could be a significant breakthrough in wildlife crime. It could not only help to catch existing poachers, but could also act as a deterrent to others."
But the way the scientists collected the DNA might be the method's Achilles heel, at least in applying it in the U.S., where many hunters (and presumably poachers) butcher deer with rubber gloves because of tick-borne diseases in deer blood.
The BBC stated, "Typically, deer poachers remove parts of the dead animal including the head, lower limbs and gut – and in doing so, they must press the carcass, potentially leaving behind skin cells from their fingers, or segments of DNA that have been squeezed out from skin cells."
That then raises the question of whether poachers who butcher a deer while wearing rubber gloves would make the methodology useless. A wildlife forensic scientist quoted in the BBC article said that "from a practical perspective, human 'touch' DNA is still extremely difficult [to obtain], the success rate is low and where it is successful it tends to be on samples that are not out in the environment.
"When you've got a wildlife crime carcass, you'd be better off looking at DNA of the deer [and] linking that back to samples of blood on implements that had been used."
Still, Govan said he is optimistic that it's only a matter of time before the new technique is used to catch a poacher, and the scientists are hoping that the methodology will be used on other animals (for example, African wildlife) as well as things like feathers, eggs, snares and traps.
While poaching is a minor concern in the U.S. and Europe, it continues to be a huge problem in the survival of endangered wildlife in places like Africa and India. In Africa, anti-poaching forces continue to catalog rhino and other DNA for possible future prosecution of poachers, and are exploring things like injecting toxic-to-human chemicals into rhino horns and implanting animals with GPS chips.