Learning how to solve Wildlife Conservation Crime Scenes!
Every year, thousands of animals are killed by poachers that get away with it, due to the lack of evidence. Starting next year, the worlds of Crime Scene Investigation and Wildlife Conservation come together to tackle this problem at the very first Wildlife Forensic Academy!
Andro Vos is the founder and CEO of the Wildlife Forensic Academy, located in the Western Cape, South Africa. He has a background in law and studied Forensic Sciences at the University of Leuven in Belgium, after which he served in the criminal justice chain in the Netherlands for 35 years. The past 15 years, he has worked as Program Director at the Netherlands Forensic Institute. During one of his journeys throughout Africa, Andro learned about one of be biggest challenges that local nature conservationists face: wildlife crime. He witnessed how conservation professionals lack forensic knowledge to secure evidence at a wildlife crime scene. That was the moment when Andro decided to follow his passion and make a difference.
Can you tell us more about the Wildlife Forensic Academy?
Together with my co-founders, Greg Simpson and Fred van Alphen, we are establishing the Wildlife Forensic Academy in South Africa, the first in the world. We aim to open the Academy mid-2020. I developed the idea for this Academy within the Netherlands Forensic Institute in collaboration with the United Nations and the European Commission. Unfortunately, due to internal obstacles, the project ended before the Academy could continue on its own. Because I kept believing in my idea, I proceeded and developed the project as a private initiative.
The biggest challenge was to create a sustainable business case. It was too risky to run the Academy based on the income from wildlife. That is why the Academy offers ‘study abroad programs’ for international students, such as veterinary medicine, wildlife forensics, conservation, ecology and life sciences.
With the income of these programmes, we can run the Academy and offer training to wildlife rangers at low prices. This way, students get a lifetime experience in Africa, improving their knowledge and skills, while directly supporting important ranger training. Our slogan is: “Sign up for a course and support a ranger”.
Why is conservation important for you?
I think it is everybody’s responsibility to contribute to the Earth and our environment. Because I am a professional in forensics, I take my responsibility and contribute to what forensics can add in the fight against wildlife crime. In many cases, wildlife rangers are the first to discover a wildlife crime scene. Usually the scene is in a remote area and there are never witness statements. Therefore, in order to solve these crimes, we must rely on forensic evidence. But due to a lack of forensic knowledge, the traces are often unknowingly destroyed! We will never be able to solve wildlife crime scenes if we don’t mobilize forensic knowledge and apply it on a wide scale in the field.
Why is forensic knowledge so important to combat wildlife crime?
The rule of law is one of the fundamental principles of our society. The most important element is objectivity! With fighting against wildlife crime, this is achieved through forensic science. You can develop the best initiatives and brightest ideas, but when the foundation of our society is not built on a solid rule of law we will continuously have to fight crime.
As we all know, poaching is a criminal act. These criminals deserve to be convicted for their offenses. Due to the fact that the animals are often killed in a remote area, there are no witness statements to support the investigations. Hence, the only evidence that is available is the traces at the crime scene. Yet, as I witnessed myself, due to a lack of forensic knowledge, traces are destroyed when rangers and veterinarians enter the crime scene. Unfortunately, we lose all the evidence this way and poachers are able to get away with it without being caught. And there is no preventive effect!
What do you hope to achieve with the Wildlife Forensic Academy?
We want forensic investigation to become an important part of wildlife crime scene investigations. For this to happen, it is important that all professionals in wildlife and conservation have forensic awareness! To facilitate the training of these professionals, we are now establishing the Wildlife Forensic Academy.
The Academy will be an 800 square meter experience laboratory. It will have crimes scene training sites, including a real house, street with a car, and a number of wildlife crime scenes. The scenes are staged with cameras, microphones and sensors. In an observation room, lecturers are able to monitor the behaviour of the Academy students when performing the crime scene investigation. Analyses are performed based on movement on the crime scene, item handling, systematic approach of evidence collection, contamination and disturbing impact. In this experience lab, the Academy students are taught to think in scenarios. And with additional high-tech Virtual Reality training, we are able to give them an almost real-life experience.
It is sad that we have to protect animals against poaching and, unfortunately, we act when the animal is already dead. But with the Wildlife Forensic Academy I am proud that we are the first in the world to address the challenge from this perspective and deliver a contribution to society.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved in conservation?
A career in conservation is an investment in yourself as a human being. Look after yourself, your family, friends and the environment and you will find a job in conservation!
If you are interested in learning more about the Wildlife Forensic Academy, or want to participate in one of the offered courses, make sure to visit: www.wildlifeforensicacademy.co.za