Ivory seizure in 2017 in Hong Kong
The UW’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science will work globally to help stop poaching of endangered wildlife species, including elephants. Researchers can extract DNA from ivory seizures, like this one in 2017 in Hong Kong, to help law enforcement pinpoint transnational criminal enterprises.

Across the globe, endangered species are at risk for illegal poaching. African elephants are sought out for their ivory, rhinoceros for their singular horns, and armadillo-like pangolins for their protective, brittle scales. Add to that list valuable and environmentally sensitive trees illegally harvested throughout the world where entire ecosystems are being deforested and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that is devastating oceans. These illicit markets, estimated at $1 trillion annually, cause enormous environmental impacts and have the potential to unleash new, deadly pathogens.

Now, a group of University of Washington professors is leading an effort to combat these crimes. The UW’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science is a unique interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers; state, federal and international law enforcement agencies; nongovernmental organizations; and the private sector that aims to disrupt and dismantle transnational organized environmental crimes.

“This important project epitomizes how UW scientists are innovating across disciplines to contribute to the public good,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “Working to protect precious and endangered species and stop transnational criminals from trafficking in illegal goods will help to preserve our natural world in service of all humanity, including future generations.”

The center was established last fall with state funding and will be led by co-executive directors John Hermanson, a UW research scientist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and Samuel Wasser, a UW professor in the Department of Biology. It will replace and broaden the work of the UW Center for Conservation Biology.

Hermanson has devised similar approaches to track illegally harvested timber. He led the development of the XyloTron, a machine vision device that scans timber and can quickly and accurately identify species. Hermanson also co-developed Arbor Harbor, with the support of U.S. Forest Service International Programs, which is a trees-to-trade reference system that helps authorities identify illicit timber shipments by aggregating and vetting information on taxonomy, geographic origin, conservation and trade regulations.

The group is comprised of nearly 40 additional scholars who span the UW’s expertise, including from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

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