Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Speciesby Laurel A. Neme
"Neme reveals concrete clues and fascinating sidelights that should keep fans of police procedurals hooked, while also focusing on cultural issues and the challenges of global reg-ulation."--Publishers Weekly
"A fantastic, exciting and revealing read! Neme takes us deep into the dark world of wildlife exploitation with a thrill level and/i>
"Neme reveals concrete clues and fascinating sidelights that should keep fans of police procedurals hooked, while also focusing on cultural issues and the challenges of global reg-ulation."--Publishers Weekly
"A fantastic, exciting and revealing read! Neme takes us deep into the dark world of wildlife exploitation with a thrill level and suspense rivaling any episode of CSI."--Jeff Corwin, wildlife biologist, producer, & host
"Tells an amazing story about concerned scientists and forensic teams working to solve the murder mysteries that all too often are overlooked: the poaching and smuggling of endangered species."--Jane Goodall
"Think CSI: Wilderness. Neme's book gives us a new set of heroes, in the labs of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and reminds us of one of the uglier set of villains on the planet, the traffickers in wildlife."--William McKibben, author of Deep Economy and The End of Nature
Accomplished environmental journalist Laurel Neme goes behind the scenes at the only wildlife forensics crime lab in the world to reveal how scientists and agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to investigate wildlife crimes, protect endangered species, and stem illegal wildlife tr
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Read an Excerpt
How can a dead, headless walrus expose the intent of its killer?
That puzzle stumped the three scientists -- Goddard, Espinoza, and Stroud -- as they prepared for the walrus investigation. Because Native Alaskans hunt walrus in late spring and early summer, the scientists would trek to Alaska at the end of July, after the season's final storms, to examine that year's carcasses. But to make their trip worthwhile, they needed a way to answer the basic question: were the headless walrus killed solely for their tusks?
As in any case, they started with what they knew. Native hunters shot their prey at sea, either while the walrus rested on floes or swam in open water (a practice called pelagic hunting). Unless bad weather or other hazards prevented it, they butchered the animals on the ice and, if their intentions were for subsistence, took as much of the hide, meat, organs, blubber, and ivory as they could use.
Killing for subsistence was legal while killing for commercial purposes was not. Consequently, the scientists would focus primarily on why the animals died and use any information they could gather on cause or manner of death or on who did it, to point to the hunter's intent. They needed to establish whether walrus were being killed wastefully by Native hunters.
They would have little evidence to go on. Because the killings would have occurred somewhere at sea days or weeks earlier, before the animals washed up on shore, they would have no witnesses and no crime scene. Even if they had, wind and weather would likely have corrupted the physical or trace evidence. They would haveto infer intent from the major piece of evidence they did have: the decomposing carcasses.
But what could a dead walrus tell them?
If the victim had been human, the scientists would have known what to expect. Regular crime labs use tried-and-true technology to produce results in which they know the chance for error. DNA testing in rape cases identifies suspects. Bullet trajectories and blood spatters reveal the position of the killer. But the wildlife crime lab was not so lucky. Nobody had worked with a walrus carcass before to ascertain whether it had been legally killed. They would have to adapt existing techniques and develop new ones to coax the walrus corpse into divulging everything it could.
During the winter and spring of 1990, in between their other duties, the scientists contemplated what data would signal wasteful kills versus subsistence kills. All three came at the problem from distinct professional viewpoints.
They began with Goddard's. Goddard's approach was determined by his background as both a cop and a criminalist. After graduating from the University of California-Riverside in 1968 with a bachelor of science in biochemistry, Goddard worked at the Riverside County Sheriff's Department as a deputy sheriff/criminalist. Ultimately he chose to focus exclusively on forensics. A charismatic, garrulous man with prematurely white hair and a coy white mustache, he went on to work at other crime labs before becoming the first director of the FWS crime lab in 1979. The wry twinkle in his eye and his humorous asides suggested that in his years of crime scene investigation he'd seen it all and was prepared for anything.
Criminalistics, Goddard's specialty, is a term often used interchangeably with forensic science. It refers to the examination, identification, and interpretation of physical evidence from a crime to reconstruct events and link a suspect to the victim. As Paul Kirk, the "father of criminalistics," noted, trace evidence "cannot perjure itself" or "be wholly absent."1 Criminalistics is based on the theory that every contact leaves some residue in the form of evidence, such as blood, tissue, fingerprints, bullets, tire tracks, shoe impressions, or hair and clothing fibers.
The most obvious form of physical evidence they might reasonably uncover in the walrus carcasses would be bullets. Bullets could prove death by gunshot, reveal the type of rifle used, or even identify the specific weapon used in the hunt. That information might rule out Russians as responsible for the killings, and thus point to Native hunters. That would be a worthwhile discovery. However, their utility for indicating wastefulness was poor because guns were used by all hunters whether for subsistence or commercial purposes. The bullets wouldn't help them distinguish between the two. For that, they needed a better line of attack.
While Ed Espinoza was a criminalist like Goddard, he was also a skilled forensic chemist. He was a patient man, in his late thirties, with a crisp Chilean accent who spoke and acted in a deliberate way. He held a bachelor of science degree in medical technology from Loma Linda University in California, both a master's and doctorate in forensic science from the University of California-Berkeley, and had worked as an assistant professor of forensic sciences and as a private practice forensic consultant specializing in homicide cases before joining the lab in 1989.
Forensic chemists use highly specialized techniques to analyze the chemical composition of organic and inorganic substances such as poisons, fire accelerants, blood, tissue, and bones to determine how an organism died. They also study decomposition and weathering to infer what happened after death.
To prove wastefulness, the scientists needed to know what happened to the walrus after they died. If the walrus had been legally killed for subsistence, the carcass would lack not only the head but also other parts such as meat, hide, and flippers. If someone had severed the heads of already dead animals washed up on the beaches, it would indicate the also legal practice of beachcombing. If, however, the heads had been cut off before being beachcast, it could be a sign of illicit headhunting.
Espinoza hypothesized that diatoms, microscopic (between 20 to 200 microns in diameter or length) single-celled photosynthesizing algae that live in both fresh and salt water, imbedded in the necks of the carcasses might tell them when the heads were removed -- either before the dead animals entered the water or after they had washed up on the beach. Because living diatoms have specific salinity, temperature, and other environmental tolerances, species vary by location. Scientists then use this information to match the composition of diatoms in the victim's body to those in a particular water source. In human forensics, they are used in two main ways: to identify a specific body of water, like a lake, and to determine whether a victim died before or after entering water.
Scientists analyze diatoms in bodies recovered in water to tell if the body was alive or dead when it entered the water.2 The theory behind this test is that if a person drowns, the diatoms in the water will reach the lungs and, if the heart is still beating, enter the bloodstream and circulate around the body, lodging in internal organs -- kidneys, brain, bone marrow -- before death. If the body was dead when it entered the water, diatoms would still reach the lungs through passive means, but they would be absent in the more distant organs because no circulatory transfer could occur.
The walrus situation was analogous. Although knowing if the animals were dead before entering the water was immaterial for determining headhunting, knowing if an otherwise intact carcass had its head removed before it entered the water would be a valuable indicator of wasteful hunting. If the head had been removed from an otherwise intact carcass on an ice floe before the body entered the water, there would be diatoms on the exposed neck area. If the head of an otherwise intact carcass had been removed after the body washed up on shore, there would be no diatoms present.
Espinoza did allow that waves splashing on the carcasses might leave diatoms, although perhaps not as many. For this method to be useful, the scientists would have to know how diatom concentrations and composition varied between the two scenarios. Yet that detailed level of diatom data simply wasn't available. They would need more research -- and a lot of it. To acquire the information, the lab would have to extract diatoms from different water depths across the walrus's entire marine environment, purify them, and then analyze them. That would be a complex, expensive, and time-consuming procedure. They needed a better option.
The third member of the team, Dick Stroud, approached the determination of wasteful hunting from his medical examiner's perspective. Medical examiners -- medical doctors with specialized training in forensic pathology -- use their knowledge of disease and body processes to determine what caused a person's death. They perform autopsies and analyze organs, tissues, and bodily fluids for indications of the circumstances of sudden fatalities. Stroud, as a veterinary pathologist, was no different, except his subjects were animals.
Since his childhood in Texas, Stroud had always been interested in wildlife. An avid hunter and fisherman, he began his career in the early 1960s as a wildlife biologist collecting data from the fur seal harvest on Alaska's Pribilof Islands, and then later participated in a pelagic research program where fur seals and other marine mammals were collected at sea and the stomach contents analyzed for species of prey. The dead animals never bothered him. To the contrary, he was used to working with animal carcasses in various stages of decomposition. To Stroud, the wonders of the functional body fascinated him and spurred his desire to study how the structure of an animal's organs and body systems changed due to disease, parasites, or injury.
Stroud returned to school and graduated in 1972 with a doctorate of veterinary medicine (DVM) from Washington State University. In 1978, while working at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University on stranded marine mammal carcasses from Oregon beaches, he completed the requirements for a master of science in veterinary pathology. He adapted what he learned on livestock and pets to wildlife in his pathology residency at the San Diego Zoological Society in 1980, and then joined FWS, where he worked first as a pathologist at the FWS National Wildlife Health laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, and later as the coordinator for the Environmental Contaminants Program (investigating oil spills, superfund sites, and cyanide leach mining) at the FWS regional office in Portland, Oregon. In 1990, he transferred to the Wildlife Forensic Lab to become the senior medical examiner for wildlife, a position he has held for more than eighteen years.
From Stroud's perspective, the best way to tell if the headless walrus had been killed wastefully or for subsistence would be through a necropsy, or animal autopsy. For human victims, autopsies yield proof on the cause and manner of death, and whether the fatality was deliberate or accidental. Maybe the same process on the walrus could generate similar evidence -- except it would be regarding hunting for subsistence or commercial purposes.
But how do you necropsy a walrus?
Stroud researched the process of walrus necropsies by talking with other wildlife veterinarians working on marine mammals, such as Sam Dover, a vet at Sea World, San Diego. Dover advised Stroud in the most expedient procedures for entering a walrus carcass and searching for signs of foul play. Yet even with this information, nobody had ever conducted a necropsy on a walrus for these purposes and under these conditions. It might not work. And still, none of the scientists had a clear idea as to how to deduce the hunter's intent from the carcasses.
By the end of May, the brainstorming and research had produced little in the way of a concrete procedure. Goddard and the others were frustrated, and it made no sense to proceed without some kind of plan. On June 4, 1990, Goddard wrote assistant regional director of law enforcement Dave Purinton suggesting the lab postpone its trip. The lab director explained that the research on diatoms had resulted in a "nonuseful technique," and that the only thing they could do in Alaska would be to dig for bullets, but that "there's no way to link the projectiles to the process of wasting the animal." Goddard recommended the forensic team wait until they could "come up with some other procedures that might help resolve the basic issues."
The Alaska FWS agents rejected Goddard's proposal. They didn't want to wait another year, or longer, as hundreds more walrus died. They wanted to do something, and Goddard willingly agreed to send a team. But the team would treat this first expedition as a preliminary exploration into more promising methods.
In July 1990, the scientists prepared to leave. Espinoza flipped through his six-page checklist to see what supplies they still needed for the upcoming trip. He would lead the investigation, with Goddard helping to document and analyze the proceedings and Stroud running the necropsies.
In the corner of the lab's conference room, Stroud bent over several plastic storage bins, running a final check on the equipment. Staring intently from behind the large glasses that dominated his round, slightly freckled face, he focused on his task. A shy, quiet man, he wore jeans and a plaid flannel shirt that echoed the fifty years he had dedicated to living outdoors and working in nature. He had diligently investigated the gear he'd need to perform necropsies on the remote beaches of Alaska, knowing that once there, he'd have to make do with whatever he'd packed. Over the past weeks, he'd collected everything from extra-long knives to meat hooks, and even designed a special form with schematic diagrams of top, left-, and right-side views of walrus bodies and skeletons to record his findings.
Goddard poked his head into the staging area to offer assistance, but Espinoza had the situation well in hand.
Espinoza scrutinized the bins for the remaining items: metal detectors to locate bullets; guns and ammunition for unforeseen wildlife threats; and even industrial-strength soap and odor neutralizer. Given the stench emanating from live walrus, these last items would be vital for handling their dead and rotting bodies.
The scientists had mapped out a plan of action. They assumed they would find evidence of three scenarios. If the walrus had been killed for its tusks, only the tusks would be removed and the remainder of the carcass would have been left to sink and eventually drift ashore. They could identify these carcasses by the way the tusks had been removed and because the rest of the body remained intact. In the second scenario, when wounded and lost animals washed up on the beach, the scientists would likely find gunshot wounds with pathological changes indicating death sometime after being shot, as well as evidence of tusk removal after the carcass had been stranded. The recovery of bullets and location of bullet wounds would provide clues to hunting skill and techniques that might be used to identify illegal or wasteful activities. The third possibility would be natural mortality with recovery of tusks from the carcasses after they'd been cast on the beach.
With these hypotheses outlined, the team would start by counting the number of stranded walrus carcasses and comparing their observations with surveys from previous years. They would then fly to each carcass to examine it more closely.
They recognized that the carcasses might be too rotten for a meaningful postmortem evaluation. And even if they did find carcasses in adequate condition, they weren't sure if a necropsy would tell them what they needed to know. They'd have to be flexible to see what worked and what didn't. This trip would be only a starting point, aimed at establishing field protocols and identifying factors, such as the inability to reach each carcass, that would affect what they could do. Then, over the next three to five years, they hoped to develop a methodology and use it to ascertain if a pattern of illegal killing existed.
Everything was ready for this first trip. Now they just needed to wait for the last of the summer storms to deposit the victims on the beach.
In late July 1990, Goddard, Espinoza, and Stroud landed in Fairbanks after a ten-hour flight. Tired and rumpled, they walked to baggage claim where they found Al Crane and his subordinate FWS special agent Mark Webb, who would act as their guides. Crane stood with his usual lanky confidence and greeted the scientists in his warm baritone. Though Crane easily surpassed six feet in height, Webb was even taller. A broad smile appeared beneath Webb's thick mustache as he greeted the men. Though a relative newcomer who'd only lived in Alaska for two years, he shared his boss's concern and enthusiasm for the state's natural resources and the people who depended on them. Crane and Webb would fly the scientists four hours north to the village of Kotzebue, twenty-six miles above the Arctic Circle, in Crane's Cessna 185 and Webb's smaller Piper Supercub.
Kotzebue, situated on a narrow, three-mile-long spit of land on the Baldwin Peninsula in Kotzebue Sound, was a relatively central launching point for the scientists to investigate the northwestern Alaska beaches. As the gateway to four major but undeveloped national parks, the Noatak National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, and the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, the area served as the home and breeding grounds for polar bears, caribou, moose, black and brown bears, and millions of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, while its offshore seas supported numerous sea mammals, including several varieties of whales, seals, and, of course, walrus.
Kotzebue's coastal location at the confluence of three rivers also made it a hub for ancient Arctic trading routes. When German lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue "discovered" the area for Russia in 1816, he found a large, well-established settlement and trading routes of Inupiat Eskimos, who called the area Kikiktagruk, which means a place that is shaped like a long island. Although weather makes the shipping season brief -- only one hundred days from early July to early October when the sound is ice-free -- Kotzebue still serves as a transfer point between oceangoing and inland vessels, and with a thousand households, it is one of Alaska's largest Eskimo villages, second only to Barrow. Like many other northern Alaskan villages, its extreme remoteness means it connects with the rest of the state only by air or sea. It has only twenty-six miles of roads, attesting to the utility of airplanes and boats over cars in this part of the world.
The scientists' first task was an aerial survey of Kotzebue Sound and the southern Chukchi Sea to count walrus carcasses and plot their locations. Once they had an accurate map of where the carcasses lay, they would return to as many as they could for closer examination.
Their route took them north along the coastal sections of the southern Chukchi Sea, from Cape Krusenstern up to Point Hope and Cape Lisburne, and then south and west, paralleling the exposed beaches and offshore barrier islands of the northern Bering Sea, and then to Topkok Head, east of Nome, an area home to 80 to 90 percent of the world's walrus. Throughout the length of their flight, the flat blue-gray ocean gave way to a skinny strip of tan-gray gravel beach that rose into an emerald and lime carpet of fragile tundra. Outlines of sunken polygons formed by the freezing and thawing of the ground divulged the shallowness of the vegetation, which sat upon endless permafrost.
As they flew, the drone of the plane reinforced the unchanging scenery's hypnotic effect, yet the scientists stayed alert by dutifully marking each carcass on their maps. The level uniformity of the landscape made spotting them easy, especially since Crane and Webb were flying low, and every ten or twenty minutes, they would glimpse one and sometimes more. From above, the carcasses looked like large brown boulders, about the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle.
An hour into the flight the scientists sighted their first live walrus, a lone animal fretting on the rocky beach. The animal seemed reluctant to enter the water; it moved jerkily toward the ocean and then stopped and backed away. Its behavior was typical of a sick or injured walrus. When hurt, pinnipeds -- marine animals with winged or finned (pinna) feet (pedis), such as walrus, seals, and sea lions -- use up their blubber. Without this insulation, they become cold in the water, which prompts them to climb onto ice or shore to warm up and may make them unlikely to venture back in. If this walrus had been wounded by a hunter, it could fit the scientists' second scenario of animals wounded and lost (not immediately recovered) by the hunter. Measuring a carcass's fat layer could reveal if it was diseased or had been injured and forced into a situation similar to this one.
By the end of the day, the count totaled sixty-one substantially intact walrus carcasses, all with tusks removed, and four live walrus. While consistent with the number of walrus that Native hunters had reported they'd caught during that spring's hunting season, the count was lower than previous years. Two years earlier, in September 1988, an aerial survey covering a slightly different range (from Wales to Barrow) found over four hundred headless walrus. The decline wasn't necessarily due to less headhunting, however, but to the climate. Usually, the hunting season lasts from four to six weeks in spring depending on the weather, but during the past May and June strong southerly winds hastened the ice pack's retreat and gave hunters less time to harvest the walrus migrating along its edge.
Later that night, sleep was difficult because the scientists couldn't stop reviewing the day. They wondered why there were so many headless walrus. Maybe the next day's necropsies would tell them.
The following morning, the team loaded their gear and set out for the first carcass, located 12.8 miles southeast of Point Hope, about 200 miles from Kotzebue. At the site, the men emerged from the planes and the smell hit them hard. Goddard and Espinoza winced. While long inured to what might turn others' stomachs from working grisly homicides, the two scientists did not look forward to the next few hours. Stroud, however, was indifferent. He'd anticipated that the rotting carcasses would be "rather odiferous," but preferred to "do walrus than a baby diaper any day."
The long, narrow beach stretched endlessly in either direction. The scientists felt as if they had landed at the end of the world and, in a sense, they had. Far from human activity, nothing sounded but the gentle hum of insects and repeated slap of the ocean.
Aside from a sporadic piece of driftwood, the bloated russet carcass was the sole feature on the landscape. It lay fifty feet from the water's edge, where twenty-four hours of sunshine, which contributed to temperatures in the high 60 degrees Fahrenheit, had accelerated its decay. The bloated body bore little resemblance to a living walrus. Without its distinctive whiskered face and two-foot tusks, it appeared more like an enormous yet grotesque rubbery floor cushion with insect-infested gashes.
If the fatality had been a human, the methodology for figuring out how, when, and where the victim died, as well as who might have done it and why, would have been relatively straightforward. The procedures were well established, and one knew what to expect from the results. Yet wildlife forensics is still in the nascent stage where human forensic science was a century ago, and many cases are "firsts." For each new class of case, meaning one that involves a not-yet-submitted species of animal, part or product, the scientists must discover a procedure to resolve the issue at hand, be it identification of the species, cause of death, or another criminal question. After that, they must demonstrate that the protocol provides consistent results. Only then could they apply the methodology to the current investigation so that it would pass legal muster.
Stroud had pointers from other marine mammal veterinarians, and he himself had dissected his own share of seals. But this case was unique. It would be the first time a medical examiner performed a walrus necropsy in a remote setting to determine wastefulness. That made it unlike any other walrus dissection.
Their first order of business was to determine an exact timeline of how a dead walrus rotted in this unique climate, and if a badly decayed carcass would yield clues about the types of weapons used and the hunting practices. Bone-weathering patterns could indicate the time of and conditions after death, but they also had to establish how the Arctic water affected the erosion of a walrus skeleton. Information about where the killing might have occurred, using drift trajectories, could also prove useful. Finally, they'd need to research both the conditions under which a dead walrus would float and how wind, waves, and currents influenced when and where it washed ashore. The only way to find out was to dig in.
The three men donned yellow coveralls and Stroud began the procedure as he would any necropsy, whether in the field or in the lab: with the carcass's history. He asked himself the standard questions: What circumstances surrounded its discovery? How long had it been there? What weather conditions might have manipulated it?
The carcass rested on its right side. Two small logs, which had probably been used to pry the posterior over so that someone could cut out its penis bone, lay near its hindquarters. Male walrus lack an externally visible penis. They hold their organ inside until ready to reproduce, at which time they extend it using a twenty-inch bone called a baculum (or oosik). Like other aspects of their biology, such as a small head with no external ear flaps, this trait streamlines their bodies and better adapts them for swimming and conserving heat. The walrus baculum is highly sought after and commands significant commercial value,4 perhaps because it is the longest of any living mammal.5 Someone had not only removed the baculum from this carcass but had also chopped the tusks out of their front sockets, leaving a bloody mess.
Randomly scattered holes pockmarked the walrus's back. Stroud examined them more closely and found that several had bruising around the punctures that distinguished them from the other holes. These were almost certainly bullet wounds.
He searched for a pattern of shot placement. If he found more wounds in the lower and back part of the animal, it might indicate that the animal had been shot while still in the water -- evidence of pelagic hunting. Pelagic hunting is a highly wasteful and inefficient method for harvesting meat, skin, or other parts because shots fired from a low platform, like a boat, at a marine mammal surfacing for air tend to result in "gut shots." While ultimately fatal, gut shots don't kill the animal right away. When the dead walrus finally does drift ashore, the only usable parts remaining are the tusks and stink meat (on the underside of the body). While the bullet wound placement alone wouldn't indicate pelagic hunting, if the hunters had also failed to remove meat, it could mean that their only desire was to kill for ivory. In contrast, if Stroud found more shots in the head and neck, it would indicate that the walrus had been killed while out of the water, the method preferred by subsistence hunters because it allowed them to harvest the animal's parts.
Espinoza waved the metal detector over the possible gunshot wounds. If they could find the bullets, they might not only identify the rifles and ammunition and individual hunters but also establish the types of hunting practices that wounded rather than killed walrus. As they soon discovered, however, finding a bullet in a walrus was no easy feat. The detector hummed steadily, apparently operating well, but gave no sign of the presence of metal. If Stroud had been at the lab, X-rays of the carcass could have quickly led him to the foreign objects. But on an isolated beach 2,400 miles from the lab's X-ray machine, the only way would be a manual search.
Stroud slipped on rubber gloves and grasped the thick wooden handle of his seven-foot-long flensing knife. Positioning the two-foot blade on the walrus's back close to its neck, he braced himself with one foot on the animal's back and the other on the ground and sliced downward. With short, controlled strokes, he split the tough one-and-a-half-inch hide to reveal a hand-sized layer of gray blubber underneath.
The stench, already unbearable, actually worsened. Stroud showed no sign he smelled the stink but Crane and Webb blanched and turned away, as if to busy themselves with the aircraft. The two agents were happy to leave the science to the scientists. Goddard and Espinoza could hardly breathe either. But they had no choice but to persevere.
Dissecting a walrus carcass is cumbersome and tricky. The tough hide is heavy, with one flipper weighing up to 150 pounds, making slicing it an arduous task. Stroud straddled the carcass to cut through the six-inch layer of fat and grayish-pink-and-brown muscle below. Espinoza acted as surgical nurse by holding back the skin with large hay hooks and metal stakes and leaning his own body back to provide a counterforce to Stroud. Goddard, having capitalized on his position as lab director to snag the easiest job for himself, was happily snapping pictures to document each step of the necropsy.
To make the carcass more manageable, Stroud carved out chunks and set them aside. He didn't have to worry about preserving the body as he would have if it had been human. The hard work dulled his blade, forcing him to stop every fifteen to twenty minutes to sharpen it. While he did that, Espinoza waved the metal detector over the lumps of muscle and fat laid out on the beach. But he still found nothing.
Stroud turned to the rib cage -- a good location for potential gunshot evidence -- and switched to long-handled pruning shears, the kind used for small tree branches, to clip away at some of the rib bones and remove part of the chest wall. Bloody fluid seeped out, and he opened the chest cavity more so that he and Espinoza could bail it out and look inside. The men scooped out cup after cup of fluid until they had filled a five-gallon plastic bucket and drained the cavity.
Stroud slid his flashlight systematically over each section, hoping to confirm bullet wounds, but after all the careful excavation, all he found was fibrous coagulated blood adhering to the lining. Stroud noted that the fibrin tags adhering to the surfaces of the thoracic cavity indicated that the animal probably died sometime after it was wounded.
Undaunted, Stroud continued the necropsy. He switched to a smaller butcher knife with a heavy high-carbon molybdenum steel blade and detached the organs. Once more, he laid the pieces -- this time the heart, liver, and kidneys -- in a line on the sand and Espinoza passed the metal detector over them. Again, nothing. Espinoza kept at it but no amount of scanning changed the result.
They repeated the process all morning and into the afternoon, but five hours after they began, they gave up trying to find a bullet in this carcass. The scientists flipped off the metal detector and, a few minutes later, Goddard's camera stopped clicking, intensifying the quiet of this distant stretch of coast. There was nothing left to do. Stroud had gone over every inch of the carcass. The necropsy was finished.
While frustrated, the three men refused to concede defeat. Instead, they chalked up the experience as information to employ in the future. They had learned the mechanics of a walrus necropsy. They also had an appreciation of the challenge of unearthing a two-and-a-half-inch or less fragment of metal in a two-thousand-or-more-pound hipposized mass.
Yet their prize -- a method to determine wasteful hunting from walrus remains -- eluded them. This victim had probably been struck and lost, not headhunted. Perhaps the next carcass would have been killed illegally. And maybe, just maybe, it would tell them something.
With dozens of dead walrus ahead, the scientists moved on to their next victim, less than a half mile southeast. This walrus's head had been severed, leaving sharp, almost surgical, knife cuts on the cartilage between the cervical, or neck, vertebrae. Somebody had wanted the tusks and knew how to get them. But was it the main reason for this animal's death?
A huge hole pierced the walrus's abdomen on its left side going through the thick blubber and stopping just short of the peritoneal cavity. Stroud looked for the cause of death. He measured the blubber, but the animal had adequate fat deposits, so poor health wasn't the issue. Instead, signs of internal hemorrhaging suggested that gunshots had caused the large, gaping wound. Stroud tried to confirm this hypothesis but once again he couldn't find any bullets or bullet tracks.
They found their third carcass a half mile away. This walrus lay on its belly high on the beach. Stroud examined the body, slicing methodically through each layer, as Espinoza assisted and Goddard recorded the process with his camera. While the head of this carcass remained intact, someone had slipped the tusks out of their sockets, probably after decomposition had expanded the skull and loosened the tight fit. Numerous holes punctured the walrus's back and left side, and intestines protruded from one of the wounds. All of these signs again pointed to death by gunshot, yet clear evidence of bullets continued to elude the scientists.
The lack of bullets disappointed the scientists. While still not able to prove intent, they might at least match bullets to a type of weapon. That data could point to hunters on one side of the Strait, and either prove or disprove which group -- Alaskan or Russian -- had killed the beachcast, headless walrus. Yet the failure didn't faze them. It only meant they'd have to take a new approach.
Weary and covered in muck, the scientists cleaned up their tools, repacked their equipment, and headed back to camp.
The following day, August 1, 1990, the men flew to another carcass they'd plotted on their map -- this one located about an hour northwest from Kotzebue, near Point Hope. The soft ground forced them to land on the far side of an Arctic stream from the victim. Unfortunately, in trying to ferry the men and equipment across the hazardous terrain, the Supercub's landing gear collapsed. Forced to scrap the examination, Webb stayed with the disabled plane to wait for a mechanic while Crane and the scientists flew back to Nome to find new transportation.
For the pilot/agents, the delay was simply part of a day's work in Alaska's perilous environment. But for the scientists it was yet another constraint on what they could hope to accomplish. Every protocol they came up with had to be reliable and replicable. In addition to the challenge of digging around a massive, badly decayed carcass, walrus necropsies presented the dual drawbacks of inaccessible locations and transportation glitches that were standard in this part of the world.
Was there a better way?
After switching to an old mail truck, Crane chauffeured the three scientists about twenty miles north of Nome toward three carcasses they had spotted during their aerial survey. With no roads and little suspension, the short distance stretched into hours of bumping and jarring. The drive ended unexpectedly when their squat green-and-white four-wheel-drive jeep got stuck in another Arctic stream.
Reaching the walrus carcasses to perform necropsies was proving more and more difficult. The goal of examining all sixty-one carcasses was starting to look nearly impossible.
While the expedition was meant as a preliminary assessment, the complications were making it apparent that necropsies might not be feasible or productive. The three necropsies thus far had failed to locate bullets despite signs of gunshots, and they had not exposed definitive evidence that differentiated between walrus hunted for subsistence and those killed for their tusks.
Often, the wildlife lab's scientists staggered up promising but faulty paths before finally finding one that worked. For example, in trying to uncover a method to distinguish between elephant and mammoth ivory, Espinoza and Mann searched for variations in hardness, density, and the amount of fat, and even discovered that very old samples fluoresced under ultraviolet light. Yet that method failed whenever the outside layer of ivory had been removed. To find a process that worked under all conditions, they examined over 10,000 pieces of ivory before homing in on the fine, curved lines radiating out from the center sections of the tusks and discovering that the angles formed by these intersecting dentinal tubules were always greater than 110 degrees in modern elephant ivory and always less than 90 degrees in ivory from mammoths.
Setbacks were a standard part of wildlife forensics, and these scientists were used to the seeming lack of progress. Dead ends taught them what didn't work, and that knowledge was just as important as learning what would. It was a normal part of scientific discovery.
With their jeep stuck, Crane and the scientists set off on foot and found the first of the next set of carcasses easily enough. While from the air it had looked like a headless walrus, on closer inspection it turned out to be a seal, so they kept going. Their next victim, located about ten miles west-northwest of Nome, had been reduced to fifty pounds of unrecognizable meat, most likely by bears and other scavengers. Espinoza scanned what he could with the detector but located no bullet fragments. Too little remained for any other type of postmortem exam.
About five miles farther, they reached the next carcass, their fifth. This was clearly a walrus, but a disgusting one. The entire head had been severed from the body and holes punctured its back. Thousands of maggots swarmed the tissue in its neck and had dissolved it into a greasy glutinous mess. The insects had partially skeletonized (eaten the tissues attached to the bones) the cervical vertebrae, which now poked through what remained of the jellylike neck. The bones were picked clean, as if they'd been there for a long time, but strangely, the rest of the body exhibited a much earlier stage of decomposition.
Stroud began dissecting the carcass while Espinoza tried to locate a bullet. The metal detector chirped over and over, as if urging the scientists to keep searching. Stroud complied and dug through the bloody mass until, finally, he had nowhere else to look. Disappointed, they gave up. Stroud hypothesized that the persistent chirping occurred because fragments had come off the main bullet as it mushroomed, while the butt or main portion traveled deep into the carcass where they could not locate it. They were so close and yet still so far.
The men walked on and, a few miles farther, located their next target. As they got within a few meters, they recognized the shapely tail of a whale. With their latest failure fresh in his mind, Goddard proposed an experiment. They could use the dead whale to test both the metal detector and their techniques for recovering a bullet and find out once and for all if their gear actually worked on a marine mammal.
Goddard took out his .357 and fired two rounds: one into the ground, as a control, and a second into the whale carcass. Espinoza waved the detector over the sand and quickly located the first shot. Then he passed the instrument over the whale, concentrating on the entrance wound and the bullet's likely path. Nothing. But since there was no exit hole, the second shot had to be somewhere inside. The experiment had proved what they had already decided -- the metal detector wasn't working as they'd hoped.
Disheartened, they called it a day. Thinking of the tasks that lay ahead, they walked up the shore to get away from the smell and stopped for the night. If the detector couldn't pick up a lead bullet in blubber four to six inches thick, to have any chance of finding a bullet, they'd have to cut the carcasses into much thinner pieces and lay them flat on the beach before using the detector.
The next day, their last in the field, they were guided to their final carcass by its stench. This huge decaying mass reeked far worse than the others. To make matters worse, it was riddled with gaping holes and open sores. Crane walked away in disgust. Even though he'd worked around hundreds of dead walrus, this one topped the charts.
The carcass lay on its left side, about fifty feet from the water and several hundred yards from an inhabited house. Someone had chopped out the tusks from the thick frontal bones of the skull, and bone fragments still stuck to the tissue. Black burn marks charred its skin and muscle and covered its back. Clearly, someone had tried without success to dispose of the smelly carcass by burning it.
Stroud, Espinoza, and Goddard pulled on coveralls, rubber boots, and gloves to ready themselves for the necropsy. Beginning his visual exam of the body, Stroud discovered two bruised holes on the right side of the neck. Espinoza ran the metal detector over the spots but, unsurprisingly, found nothing. Even so, Stroud thought the holes might be from bullets. He inserted two arm-length aluminum rods into the holes to track the bullets' possible course. With a little effort, he slid the probes along what seemed to be clear projectile paths until they stopped, about six to ten inches beneath the hide.
Stroud picked up a narrow, six-inch knife and carefully sliced the muscle along the track of the first rod until, at last, he hit something solid. Keeping his knife steady, he inserted his gloved hand into the tissue to meet the blade and felt around so as not to lose touch with the object. Moments later, his face lit up. He pulled his hand out from the muscle and held up his prize: a small metal fragment and several flakes.
The men grinned at each other and placed the items in an evidence bag, which they marked and sealed for later analysis. Encouraged, Stroud sliced along the second path. When he was about six inches in, he grinned again. He slipped forceps in to meet his hand and pulled out a large-caliber bullet.
Basking in the small victory, Stroud thought about the location of the bullets. While these injuries clearly caused bleeding, he did not know if they were immediately fatal and figured there must be additional wounds elsewhere. He opened the thoracic cavity and siphoned out ten gallons of bloody liquid. The lungs and heart appeared intact and he found nothing amiss. He cut through the abdominal cavity and bailed out another five gallons of red fluid. Traces of intestine floated in the bloody drainage, suggesting the walrus had been shot through the bowel. Inch by inch, Stroud inspected the abdominal wall with a flashlight but saw nothing that suggested gunshots. He searched with the metal detector but could discern no additional signs of bullets or damage.
Finished, Stroud collected his tools while Goddard and Espinoza soaked the carcass with gasoline and set it on fire. A few minutes later, the flame changed from bright orange to deep red-orange and then blue as the carcass smoldered and blistered.
Their investigation had been both a success and a failure. They had encountered carcasses from a range of scenarios, some shot, lost, and then beachcombed and others possibly poached for their ivory. They'd learned to dissect a decaying walrus, and they'd learned the limits of their metal detector. But they still had no definitive way of telling whether a particular walrus had died from ivory poaching.
The necropsies, although clearly a necessary first step, had yielded less than expected, and finding bullets turned out to be far more complicated than they'd anticipated. Most important, however, they'd discovered the difficulties of operating in that remote environment and the constraints on what they could accomplish. Just getting to each carcass was an ordeal, and with the incomplete answers from the necropsies themselves, continuing full dissections of individual carcasses was not a feasible option. Before they could do more, the scientists would have to return to the lab and see what else their expedition and the evidence they had recovered would reveal.
Back at the FWS wildlife forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon, during the fall of 1990, the scientists hoped the hard-won bullet they'd found would provide some answers as to who had done the killing: Alaskan or Russian hunters.
After talking with the team, Mike Scanlan, the lab's ballistics expert, analyzed the bullet under his optical comparison microscope. Using his Fowler Dial caliper, he measured the diameter, or caliber, of the bullet, then counted the lands, or cuts into the bullet, and grooves. He noted how the land impressions angled from the tip to the back, indicating the direction of twist, and then measured the width between each of the lands and grooves.
Scanlan compared his data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's General Rifling Characteristics File that was established and updated by its Firearms-Toolmarks Unit and determined that the bullet was a .284-caliber copper-jacketed projectile. But he couldn't tell for sure what type of weapon had fired it. The best he could do was narrow the possibilities to a 7mm Remington Magnum cartridge fired from an Alpine Sporter, Remington Model 700, or a Tikka M65 rifle, or a 7x61 mm S&H fired from a Schultz and Larson M60. Despite this uncertainty, the information proved useful. Neither of these bullets was used by Russian hunters, who favored steel-jacketed bullets; the copper ones were preferred by Native Alaskans. This slug pointed straight to Alaskan hunters.
The scientists were pleased with the finding but still needed more proof. Espinoza had a hunch that the location of the carcass could shed light on who had beheaded it and dumped it into the sea. Despite a boundaryless ocean, the Russian and Native Alaskan communities hunted in relatively distinct areas. Two of the Alaskan subsistence hunting regions were located north of St. Lawrence Island and a third was east of Little Diomede Island. If Espinoza could show that ocean currents could only have carried the dead walrus from these Alaskan hunting grounds to their final resting places on the Alaskan beaches of the northern Bering Strait and southern Chukchi Sea, then he could disprove the claim that those carcasses had been killed on the Russian side.
Subsistence hunters used their knowledge of ocean currents to find their cryptic kills, walrus wounded during the hunt that died later, after they'd been cast on the beach. He would do the same thing but in reverse.
Espinoza considered the aerial survey map they'd made during their trip and compared it to charts showing ocean currents, wind patterns, and community hunting areas. He then reviewed thermal images from NASA and located three main currents through the Bering Strait: one from the Yukon River that hugged the Alaskan coast; a second through the middle that moved north from the Pacific; and a third, noticeably warmer, that came from China and followed the Russian shore. With these general bearings, Espinoza set out to find hard data on where the dead walrus would drift.
To simulate the walrus' movements, he turned to three drift experiments that had been done in the same geographic area. In the first, completed over thirty years earlier for the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission,7 sixteen hundred bottles were released at thirty-five stations in the northern Bering and southeastern Chukchi Seas and their paths were analyzed. In the second, conducted in 1979 for Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, scientists had evaluated the movement of a possible spill from a proposed oil and gas lease sale in the Norton Basin. The third, a field test run in 1990 for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), had also mimicked pollution drift trajectories by following satellite-tracked surface buoys. These studies gave Espinoza a good idea of where a floating object would end up.
But would a dead walrus even float?
Research published in the mid-1970s by renowned marine mammalogist and walrus expert Francis H. "Bud" Fay, as well as the personal experience of Special Agent Crane, told Espinoza that if a walrus carcass was cut open, which would happen during subsistence hunting, it would sink and stay sunk. Knowing this, poachers would sometimes slit a walrus's belly to hide the wastefulness of their kill. However, if a walrus carcass was relatively intact, it would sink initially but later rise, perhaps in two to three days, as putrefaction of the tissues, especially in the stomach, intestines, and abdominal or thoracic cavities, produced enough gas. Once the carcass was buoyant, the wind, waves, and currents would bring it to shore.
Confident that a walrus carcass would follow the same patterns as the bottle drift trajectory studies, Espinoza predicted that in the two hunting areas north of St. Lawrence Island, circular surface currents would bring dead animals back to the island, while those wounded in the third area, east of Little Diomede Island, would drift either toward the northern shore of the Seward Peninsula along the coastline from Cape Prince of Wales to Cape Espenberg, or to the western Alaska shore from Cape Krusenstern to Point Hope.
He examined additional data, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maps on distribution of currents and the known movement of lumber down the Yukon River, which deposited in Cape Prince of Wales, and confirmed his calculations. The headless walrus on the beaches of Alaska's Seward Peninsula could not possibly have been killed in Russian hunting areas.
So far, all the evidence -- shot placement, the bullet they'd found, and walrus buoyancy and drift patterns -- suggested wasteful and illegal hunting practices. But they needed much more evidence before Crane and the Native communities could do something about it. They had to prove that a pattern existed.
But how? They needed a method more practical and efficient than individual necropsies to determine whether or not a dead walrus was killed for its tusks.
Espinoza examined the photographs from the necropsies. As he inspected the images of bloated bodies, the stark whiteness of the severed vertebrae peeking out from the bloody tissue of the walrus' necks caught his eye the same way it had in the field. The appearance of the vertebrae was odd, almost as if someone had cleaned them.
He flipped through the remaining pictures. Even though the clean, white neck bones looked weathered, the skin's reddish-white color pointed toward an earlier stage of decomposition. But the disparity couldn't be possible: how could rates of decay vary within a single carcass?
Like any organic object, dead walrus rot in an orderly sequence: first stiffening and bloating; then popping and deflating when an external force, perhaps a seagull picking at the flesh, pierces it and lets the gases escape. After the flesh disintegrates, some tissue clings to the bones and they stay black until microorganisms, wind, and sun eventually clear the remaining tissue and bleach them white. Arctic weather influences the time frame of decomposition, with warm, wet summers allowing the carcass to complete this cycle in as little as two weeks and cold temperatures disrupting it for up to a year.
No matter the variation in lengths of decay, many of the beached carcasses examined in Alaska didn't fit the sequence. Instead, they exhibited two separate stages of decomposition: the bodies were more or less intact, mostly at the "popped" stage, but the exposed vertebrae in the neck were already white. Espinoza was determined to find out why.
When Espinoza told his butcher he needed nine fresh, partly fleshed articulated cow leg bones, with joints still connected by tissue and ligaments, the man, used to the scientist's odd requests, barely blinked before gathering them in several plastic bags. Espinoza took them back to the office and set them on his black lab table next to the ax, handsaw, and chain saw he'd laid out for his experiment -- he planned to replicate the weathering patterns he'd seen on the walrus's vertebrae. He'd start by using the three implements to create three types of cuts that simulated the hunters' methods. He'd then take the bones to the Oregon coast to see what happened when they were subjected to water and weather.
Espinoza grasped the first cow joint firmly and chipped at it with short, sharp strokes of his ax. The jagged edge grew as bone chips flew across the table. He repeated the procedure on two more bones. Then he switched to the handsaw, slicing back and forth to cut the ends off of three more joints, leaving dust particles in his wake. Finally, he slipped on clear plastic safety goggles and positioned the remaining joints in a vise. The chain saw's sharp whirr roared through the lab as he gently touched the teeth to the samples. At the moment of contact, its pitch rose irritatingly until, seconds later, he finished. He turned it off and ran his index finger across the edge of the cut. Smooth. Much more so than the previous sets.
With a hand drill, he bored holes through each bone. He then threaded thin nylon cord through the openings and knotted it around the samples. For one bone of each set, he added a second rope, attached to a heavy rock. Preparations complete, he was ready for his bone-weathering experiment. He repackaged the joints and put them in the refrigerator.
The next morning, with the bones packed in a couple of plastic coolers, he drove two hours to a U.S. Coast Guard station at Oregon's Gold Beach, where the experiment would begin in earnest. He would put the cow bone samples in three different microenvironments -- marine subsurface, tidal, and partly vegetated rocky beach -- to simulate the exposure of the neck bones.
Espinoza lugged one of the coolers to the nearby pier, waded into the water, and pulled the cooler along as it floated next to him. He fastened one bone from each set to the pylons so the tide would lap over them when it came in.
He carried the second cooler high onto the beach, away from the tideline. There, he hammered a metal stake into the grassy sand and secured the next set of bones. They'd be exposed to the sun and salty mist but remain untouched by the ocean water.
Next, using a Coast Guard boat, he tied the last set to a buoy floating about fifty yards from shore. He tossed the bones and their attached rocks overboard, knowing they'd stay underwater.
Now all he had to do was wait.
Thirty-five days later, eager to see the results, he returned to retrieve the bones. Back at the lab, a cursory visual exam showed clear variations among the bones. Dark brown oily splotches stained the tidal samples, perhaps because of some tissue residue. The beach bones, too, had blood and tissue remnants, but unlike the tidal ones, they appeared white and dry underneath. Only the fully submerged set looked anything like the exposed vertebrae he'd seen in Alaska and which stood out in the photos: white and clean of residue. Now he knew. The walrus vertebrae must have been exposed in the salt water for some time before landing on the beach.
Espinoza wondered why marine scavengers and microorganisms would feed only on the neck, and not on other parts of the skeleton, too. The only explanation was that the walrus' heads were removed at the time they were killed and before they drifted to shore. If the results of Espinoza's bone experiment held for the severe Alaskan waters, and if a carcass exhibited no other evidence of subsistence harvesting, the forensics lab would have an indisputable and efficient way to tell whether or not a particular walrus died because of ivory poaching.
Sitting in his Fairbanks office during the summer of 1991, Webb opened the FedEx package containing new sets of Espinoza's carefully prepared cow joints. He shook his head and stroked his dark mustache as he examined them. This was not a typical special delivery. Crane had assigned Webb to assist Espinoza in a scaled-down investigation of more walrus carcasses, and Espinoza would arrive in less than a month. First, Webb would fly up to Nome to begin the bone-weathering experiment in the Arctic waters of the Bering Sea. Webb had been planning to go north anyway for his regular preseason meetings with Native Alaskans; he'd add this testing to his to-do list.
When he got to Nome, Webb drove to the rocky pier at the edge of town and, carrying one of the plastic coolers, picked his way over the huge boulders until he was far enough out. He threw the first set of bones into the water and watched as they sank beneath the weight of the rocks he'd attached. He then tied the other end of the rope to metal stakes hammered into the boulders. They'd stay put.
He knotted the second set to the pier where the bones would be intermittently submerged. Carrying the third cooler, he strode up to the ruby sands beach, away from the sea, hammered a stake into the ground, and secured the third group of bones to it.
Nineteen days later, Espinoza arrived. He and Webb drove from the Nome airport to retrieve the bones before flying out to the northwest beaches to begin the exams. As soon as they pulled the bones up from the pier, Espinoza saw that these samples exhibited the same patterns as his Oregon experiment, confirming his conclusions and validating the proposed methodology for this, his second expedition.
The two men planned to fly the coast between Cape Espenberg and Cape Prince of Wales and look at every dead walrus they found using a new approach. Instead of doing a full necropsy on each carcass, Espinoza would concentrate on the presence or absence of three things: evidence of harvesting meat or parts other than ivory; unusual bone weathering; and the method of tusk removal. Skilled Native hunters detach a walrus's head by cutting at the atlantal-occipital junction, located about a foot behind the neck. A walrus head does not end where its neck does; its skull cap continues for twelve more inches. Cutting the head at the junction is the quickest and easiest method and leaves behind a clean, surgical cut. Inept hunters or beachcombers chop out the tusks, leaving a bloody mess of severe cuts and hatchet marks to the face and jaw (maxillary structure) of the walrus. Alternatively, tusks pulled out with minimal effort indicate the skull's prolonged exposure to water, which causes the bone to expand, and is a sign the carcass washed ashore intact. Together, these three features would constitute proof of wasteful hunting.
The next day, they flew from Nome to Cape Prince of Wales and then traveled northeast until they spotted their first carcass. They landed without trouble a short distance from the walrus and didn't bother to unload. This wouldn't take long.
Webb placed a crime scene marker on top of the body and Espinoza snapped a few pictures. The scientist walked around the animal, clipboard in hand, and marked the GPS (global positioning system) location on his worksheet. Then he scrutinized the condition of the skin, surface blubber layers, putrid smell, and scavenger activity and estimated the stage of overall decomposition of the carcass. The white cervical vertebrae poked out where the head should have been, contrasting sharply with the rest of the decay. On the underside of the walrus's belly, cuts indicated that someone had tried and failed to make the body sink. Espinoza jotted down his findings and shot more photos as illustration. Thirty minutes later, they got back in the plane and moved on to the next scene.
They flew from carcass to carcass along the desolate Alaskan coastline, stopping once to refuel near an equipment cache Webb had set up earlier. At each carcass, they duplicated their documentation of the animal's condition. Each time they repeated the process, the more adept they became. Working as a team, they eventually took as little as fifteen minutes to gather the data required. At about seven p.m., with the sun only slightly lower in the sky, they flew back to their campsite.
After several more days of gathering data, they had documented 105 carcasses from Point Hope to Cape Prince of Wales, a huge increase over the 61 carcasses the scientists had counted in their first week-long trip, which surveyed a longer strip of coastline from Cape Lisburne, 40 miles northeast of Point Hope, to Topkok, located about 120 miles southwest of Cape Prince of Wales past Nome.
Espinoza flew back to Oregon to analyze the evidence. For each carcass, he had three key facts:
1. The condition of the exposed cervical vertebrae -- if the head had been removed, were they bleached or stained?
2. The way the hunter had removed the head -- was it via a surgical cut at the atlantal-occipital junction, where the lower part of the back of the skull meets the top of the first cervical vertebra, or via chopping?
3. The presence or absence of meat harvesting -- had hunters taken any meat or just the tusks?
Using this information, Espinoza put each carcass into one of five categories:
- Category I -- headless carcass with clean cut at neck and exposed white neck bones
- Category II -- head intact but tusks removed
- Category III -- headless carcass with severe cuts and exposed oily, blotchy neck bones
- Category IV -- fully intact carcass
- Category V -- carcass too rotten to examine
The first group contained carcasses with vertebrae separated at the joints. This meant a skilled hunter had removed the head in a clean, surgical manner at the atlantal-occipital junction, thus exposing the neck bones, which now appeared white and clean of tissue or cartilage. Unless the hunter also took some meat, flippers, or other traditionally harvested parts, the headless walrus in this category represented purposely wasteful and illegal hunting.
None of the other scenarios confirmed unlawful harvesting. Carcasses found with their heads intact but their tusks pulled out with minimal effort -- Category II -- indicated legal harvest of the tusks of walrus that had died from either natural or man-made causes and then washed ashore intact. Walrus in the third category, with tusks chopped out and oily and blotchy cervical bones, also pointed to legal harvest of tusks by beachcombers after the carcass had been cast on the beach with head attached. Fully intact carcasses, in Category IV, had either died naturally or been shot and never recovered, while Category V contained walrus carcasses too rotten to examine. Their advanced decomposition -- indicated by the gray-white color of their skin, caving in of the abdominal cavity, decayed flippers, exposed rib bone, and disarticulation (separation of joints) -- made it impossible for Espinoza to infer anything.
Finally, after eighteen months of considering the problem, Espinoza had the evidence he needed. He could establish a pattern of illegal hunting.
Because the locations covered by earlier surveys diverged from one another, the scientist focused on the area of commonality, the 150-mile or so stretch of coast on the northwestern side of the Seward Peninsula, to assess trends. For purposes of comparison with previous aerial surveys of beachcast walrus, Espinoza concentrated solely on the 70 carcasses located between Cape Prince of Wales (near the village of Wales, the westernmost point of the North American continent) and Cape Espenberg, just north of the Arctic Circle in the Bering Land Bridge Natural Preserve.
Of the 70 carcasses he'd just examined there, about 75 percent fell into the first category -- headless with a surgical cut and bleached neck bones. Within this group, 85 percent (44 carcasses) exhibited no attempt to recover anything other than the ivory. No meat, no organs, no flippers. Espinoza concluded that these walrus had been killed only for their tusks. But more than that, he'd established a straightforward approach to determine scientifically whether or not a walrus had been wastefully and illegally killed.
During the summers of 1992 and 1993, Espinoza returned to Alaska to count and examine more beachcast walrus with Webb and a third agent, Kim Speckman. Finally, he had enough evidence to establish a broad pattern of headhunting. Over the three summers, Espinoza had found 102 headless carcasses with a clean cut and exposed neck bones with no meat harvested, which confirmed poaching. While the exact percentage of headhunted carcasses declined over the course of the investigation, with 85 percent found in 1991, 53 percent in 1992, and 23 percent in 1993,8 the results proved that Native Alaskan hunters were killing walrus for commercial, not just subsistence, purposes.
After more than four years of hard work, the lab's results confirmed what Native Alaskans and FWS agents already knew: walrus were being headhunted for their ivory. The lab's findings eliminated excuses and provided an opening for FWS and Native communities to work together for change.
Copyright © 2009 by Laurel A. Neme
Meet the Author
Laurel A. Neme is an international consultant specializing in natural resource management. She writes for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin and has written for The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and World Wildlife Fund.
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