Pangolins are amongst the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world, with hundreds of thousands being slaughtered each year for their meat and scales. In recent months, pangolins have gained extra attention due to their link to the spread of COVID-19, resulting in the Chinese government making efforts to control the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine. All eight species of pangolin are protected and included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species, but this does not deter criminals from capturing and selling these animals.
In recent years forensic techniques have been harnessed in the fight against poaching and illegal animal trafficking, in particular with the aim of linking illegally traded animal materials to the perpetrator. Materials derived from animals pose a particular challenge for traditional fingerprinting techniques, with techniques often not being suitable for use on the likes of scales, feathers and skins of animals. Furthermore, in order for fingerprint development and collection techniques to be rolled out across relevant countries, the tools developed need to be easy to use, effective and inexpensive.
In a recent study published in Forensic Science International, a team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth developed a technique for lifting fingermarks from the scales of pangolins, demonstrating the potential to connect criminals to illegally traded pangolins via fingerprints. As an individual pulls scales from a pangolin, it is likely that fingermarks will be deposited on the scales. However, determining the best development technique for this unique material can be challenging.
The technique presented employs lifters which contain a soft gelatine material ideal for picking up traces and impressions when pressed against a surface. Low-adhesive gelatine lifters have been used in forensic practice for decades, particularly for lifting footwear marks and fingermarks off objects, but have not been widely applied in wildlife crime. The surface of a pangolin scale is uneven, containing voids that could be problematic for some development techniques. However, the soft nature of the gelatine allows the lifters to press into the voids and lift as much material as possible.
In this study, scales from varying African species of pangolin were provided by the UK Border Force for the assessment of the gelatine lifting technique. Of the marks lifted from pangolin scales, 74% exhibited ridge detail and 24% showed no ridge detail but evidence of contact. Once lifted, the fingermarks could then be imaged using a camera or mobile phone camera for rapid digitisation. Although only a pilot study, the research has demonstrated that the gelatine lifter could be easily applied to the scales of the pangolin and subsequently preserved for scanning and comparison, providing law enforcement with a potential route to identify poachers.
Moorat et al. The visualisation of fingermarks on Pangolin scales using gelatine lifters. Forensic Science International, 2020. DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2020.110221