Illegally traded specimens of endangered species present a huge problem to investigators and customs officials all over the world. But it’s not all ivory and endangered animals: it’s bits of wood. Shockingly, international timber trafficking is an estimated $100 billion business, according to Interpol.
Wildlife trade is one thing, and forensic specialists have managed to come up with some ingenious (and spectacular) deterrents to illegal wildlife trade, including advanced DNA testing that is now used to protect endangered or threatened animals. Detecting illegal wood products is more challenging, especially after the timber has been processed, because the limbs, leaves and DNA-rich sapwood have been removed.
A special machine ‘smells’ the difference between types of wood
The world’s only lab dedicated solely to wildlife forensics is in southern Oregon –U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab. This lab is using a DART-TOF (Direct Analysis in Real Time – Time of Flight) mass spectrometer, a machine that can smell the difference between types of wood.
“Originally we had no idea if it was going to pan out or not. But I knew if it had an odor … this instrument is kind of like a massive nose, almost,” Ed Espinoza told NPR.
Here’s how it works: When investigators find something they think might have been made with illegal wood, they send it to the lab. The lab takes a small sample and puts it in the machine. The machine reads the unique combination of chemicals given off by the wood, and gives a reading that the scientists can compare to other samples in a growing database. If the wood is a match for a rare or endangered species, the authorities can take action against the people using illegally forested wood.
By doing this regularly, not only could thousands of trees be saves but also many animal species that are affected by illegal logging.