Spaceship Earth

Solutions in Sight: Endangered Species

Animal Detectives

The United States Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory

A Conversation with Tsara Borsting
April 1998

As a high school student, Tsara Borsting began volunteering at the United States Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. There she discovered a whole world of information and technology that could be used to help endangered species. Now at 17, Tsara is on staff at the Lab, contributing her expertise to a very special Internet project that is used to help people and animals around the world.

Tsara BorstingPhoto:Tsara Borsting

The InSite: What can you tell me about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab?

Tsara: It's the largest and one of the only forensics lab [of its kind] in the country. All the illegal poaching and smuggling cases are all sent to this lab. We have a crime lab. We have a morphology lab. The morphology lab determines the species, sex and age of an animal. Sometimes we only receive a feather or tuft of fur from a case and have to determine what kind of animal it is and if it's endangered or not. Other cases are things like fur coats or leather purses and the lab has to determine it's origin. We get all different kinds of animals and we have to figure out the cause of death. Sometimes people will claim that they didn't kill the animals. It's our job to figure out if the person actually did kill that animal.

TI: What exactly do you do there?

Tsara: I write a lot of web applications. Most of them have to do with taking existing data bases and organizing them and making it possible for people to query information via the Internet!

TI: What kind of data bases are we talking about?

Tsara: The one that's posted on our web site Asian Medicinal Endangered Species Database is a database of Asian medicinals frequently seen in trade that contain endangered species. The Forensics Lab actually gets a large quantity of these medicinals because they're smuggled illegally into the country. The popularity of Asian medicinals makes poaching very lucrative.

TI: The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to buy or sell endangered species or parts from those animals. People know that, so why are they continuing to buy these products?

Tsara: There's a huge black market in actual animal parts and the medicinals in Asian communities in American and in Asia. I'd have to say that the largest part of it is tradition. For most ailments the Asian medicinals are used to treat, containing an endangered species, there are herbal or chemical compounds that do just the same thing.

TI: How did you get involved in this work? What sparked the interest in you?

Tsara: I started volunteering at the Forensics Lab about a year and a half ago. I was in a special program at my high school that focused on environmental issues. We spent half of our time working in the community in environmentally oriented agencies. Naturally the Forensics Lab came up because it's one of the only labs in the country and it happens to be located in my town. Also, their main focus is wildlife preservation. I just came there as a general volunteer and it turned out that they needed someone with computer skills, and I have that!

TI: Is this still a volunteer job for you?

Tsara: No, it's a paying job!

All the illegal poaching and smuggling cases are all sent to this lab.

TI: And what do you like most about it?

Tsara: It's a very challenging job. I definitely learn something new every day. Computer programming isn't something they teach you in high school. Also there's always some new animal or new case coming into the lab.

Misuse of endangered birdsTI: When you first started there, did they put you right on the computer?

Tsara: [Laughing] Actually at first, they weren't sure what they were going to do with me! By chance they got this case...which was boxes and boxes of thousands of Asian medicinals and they all had to be photographed and cataloged. They found the best way to do that was to organize them so they could be accessed via the Internet.

TI: How about analyzing them, so they know which substances they are dealing with?

Tsara: Yes, that's another thing they do there. They break them down and look at the chemical compounds of the medicinals. They found that most of the medicinals didn't even contain the endangered species parts that they claimed to contain. But lots of them do contain high levels of toxic metals...taken in high enough doses could kill someone!

TI: If there aren't any endangered species parts in these things that sounds like good news for the animals...but if toxic metals are in there instead,that sounds like very bad news for human consumers!

Tsara: Yes! Definitely!

TI: How long have you been working on this Asian medicinals?

Tsara: Six months. We took digital photographs of all of them. We cataloged and numbered them and put them in the data base. Not to mention the web page programming that went into it as well.

TI: Who would use this on line resource?

Tsara: Alternative medicine is becoming very popular and a lot of people are turning toward Asian medicinals. There have been a lot of documented cases of people getting sick from them! The lab gets a lot of cases of people not knowing what to do with these medicinals and wanting to send them to the lab to see if they have animal parts in them. And it takes up a lot of time and money for them to do this [analysis] so they figured it would save them a lot of energy if you could just look up to see if we've already received a medicinal of that type on our data base. So it's a resource for the community. But mostly [the people who use this database] are already in the Fish and Wildlife Service.

They found that most of the medicinals didn't even contain the endangered species parts that they claimed to contain.

TI: What are the most unusual endangered species components you've actually found in these medicinals?

Tsara: Bear gall bladder is in some of them. A lot of medicinals contain tiger bone. Rhinoceros horn. Deer musk. A gland from the musk deer (the same thing that is in musk perfume). Antelope horn. The most interesting thing that I've seen is a pangolin. It's like an anteater but it has scales. The scales are the part they use in the medicinals.

TI: I know the word forensics has to do with "solving a crime" using clues found in a dead body. Does the lab do that kind of detective work with animals?

Tsara: Definitely! We had some eagles that looked as if they had drowned in their own blood! The pesticides that had been sprayed on the fields around their habitat had caused them to bleed profusely. It's a tricky thing because people are so used to using pesticides. It's hard to get them to change. It's almost like the Asian medicinals, it's cultural.

TI: Any cases of people smuggling live animals?

Tsara: We had a huge shipment of baby wallabies. They would be taken from their mothers, prematurely and shipped them in little felt pouches to simulate their mother's pouch. 

We had a huge shipment of baby wallabies...Fifty percent of them died on the way to the United States...  

TI: But there is no nutrition inside a felt pouch!

Tsara: Exactly! They stuck a carrot or something in there! Fifty percent of them died on the way to the United States and we had this huge shipment of dead wallabies. They were meant to be pets and they were sold for $5,000!

TI: Wow! It's amazing how stupid and thoughtless some people are! Is there something you could say, in general, about what you've gained from volunteering that might inspire other young people to go out there and find some way to help in their community?

Tsara: Most of my volunteering experiences have been not only educational but a lot of fun! It's doing something I feel strongly about and usually it's doing something that you get an immediate reward for. It really makes you feel better about yourself. And bringing your peers into it makes it even better!

USFW Forensics Laboratory warehouse
Most of my volunteering experiences have been not only educational but a lot of fun! It's doing something I feel strongly about...
Want to find out more about

the The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab?

Visit their web site at: www.lab.fws.gov

Email Tsara at: [email protected] 


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