Forensics for Wildlife

In Eswatini, Africa, a molecular biologist will help prosecute poachers.

Sara Padidar has made significant contributions in wildlife conservation for the African nation of Eswatini, helping establish its first ever wildlife forensic laboratory.

Padidar, a molecular biologist from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Eswatini, initiated the Eswatini Wildlife Laboratory, known as EWILD, in 2022, with funding from USAID. The lab helps support anti-poaching efforts by government rangers in Eswatini, a landlocked neighbor of South Africa that at one time saw its rhino population hunted to near extirpation. Through the lab and her prior work, Padidar has helped shape the modern conservation landscape, enabling the country to step up efforts to combat poaching.

white rhino in eswatini

At one point, Eswatini’s rhino population was hunted to near extirpation. The EWILD Laboratory, initiated by Sara Padidar, uses DNA forensics to support anti-poaching efforts by government rangers. Photo by David Nunn.

EWILD uses state-of-the-art equipment to differentiate between meat that comes from wild game and domestic animals, using a small sample of fur, blood, or tissue. The lab can also identify a specific animal. Such DNA forensics strengthens investigations and provides evidence to courts in poaching and other animal-related cases. Prior to the launch of the lab, Eswatini relied heavily on South Africa for analysis, a costly, time-intensive process.

A registered nutritionist and pharmacist, Padidar has more than 20 years of experience in international development, education, and health access. Having worked across numerous health sectors, from R&D to front-line patient delivery to global development, Padidar is experienced in the use of innovative tools and technologies in resource-limited settings. She is now finding ways to transfer these skills from health care to conservation.

EIJ: How did your passion for wildlife conservation develop?

SP: My passion grew slowly. Like many people, my attitude towards wildlife was, “Oh that’s a nice or cute animal in the bush.” However, I was less positive on the occasions that I found a wild animal in my house, or eating from my vegetable garden, and wanted them gone.

Then I met my husband, who is a zoologist, and I became more exposed to the issues related to wildlife and wildlife conservation. He enrolled me in a snake-handling course because we lived rurally in Eswatini. Interacting with wild snakes during the course allowed me to overcome my own prejudices of snakes and gain a full appreciation of each species we have on this planet, be it a tiny mosquito or a fearsome black mamba or a majestic elephant.

Animals do not have a voice, yet we humans make decisions every day that affect them, usually negatively. So when I returned to Eswatini in 2019, I decided to refocus my work with both animals and people and continue my work in providing a voice to the voiceless.

My research tries to bring together my backgrounds in molecular biology and health with ecology. The new EWILD laboratory will greatly improve our understanding of our natural heritage, and so I’m excited to use my knowledge and background in molecular biology to deep dive into this area. After all, DNA is DNA, whether it is from humans, animals, plants, or microorganisms.

Molecular biology is a highly versatile tool. I tackle molecular questions in wildlife and wildlife conservation from a different perspective and perhaps a degree of neutrality that is possibly different compared to someone who has always worked in ecology.

Why and how did you come about setting up Eswatini’s first-ever wildlife crimes lab?

Mahatma Ghandi is quoted to have said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” As a citizen of Eswatini, I have a choice: I can be part of the problem or of the solution. During Covid-19, global poaching and illegal wildlife crime increased. At the same time, our borders with South Africa were closed, making it challenging for law enforcement agencies to have samples analyzed to bring perpetrators to justice. The choice was simple. Was I going to sit quietly and say, “Ooh shame, that’s so bad,” or could I use my skills in molecular biology and become part of the solution? I chose the latter.

Sara Padidar in the Eswatini Wildlife Laboratory

Padidar’s research combines her background in molecular biology and health with ecology to help protect Eswatini’s natural heritage. Photo courtesy of EWILD Laboratory.

I applied for a USAID grant through the USAID-VukaNow project. The project aimed to reduce wildlife crime in Southern Africa but didn’t include Eswatini. Together with my colleague in the department, we reached out to the relevant national bodies who are responsible for wildlife conservation to understand the challenges they face.

The proposal was rejected. But as a scientist, I see failure as an essential and inescapable part of a process. So I went back to my proposal, looked at it critically, and prepared it again. The second time round, we were successful.

How is poaching a cause for concern in a small country like Eswatini, and how will EWILD help?

Eswatini has a rich natural heritage, and poaching robs us of it. Within our borders, we are most fortunate in having the biodiversity we have and some very beautiful habitats. Poaching of plants and animals has a devastating impact on this biodiversity, our economy, and our wellbeing as humans. Being a small country is to our advantage, as we can be more agile in our actions to protect our country’s wildlife.

The EWILD laboratory will now be part of the African Wildlife Forensic Network, enabling us to work together internationally to protect our natural heritage. International wildlife crime is a lucrative, multibillion-dollar business, operating across borders, and therefore it takes a collaboration between countries to ensure we stop it.

Law enforcement agencies will bring wildlife forensic samples to our laboratory for molecular analysis. We may be asked to identify what an animal is from a tiny drop of blood or tissue. This assists the prosecution, for example, to determine if a wild animal has been involved in the criminal case and if so, what species. This is because certain species carry greater sentencing.

How do you distinguish between poachers who are criminals and poachers who might be desperate poor people?

Thankfully it is our judiciary that needs to make this distinction. Our laws account for this during sentencing. For example, poaching an elephant carries a different sentence to poaching a duiker. My task and the task of the team at the EWILD laboratory is to analyze the samples brought in and to identify the species the samples belong to. An analyzed sample can demonstrate if a suspect is innocent or guilty of wildlife crime, so the judiciary can then carry out the relevant next steps.

Why is it important to work with local partners and authorities on poaching prevention?

Wildlife conservation is multifarious. As the EWILD laboratory, we focus on molecular and morphological identification of animals, be they poached or otherwise. Our partners are crucial as they are involved in other aspects of the wildlife conservation value chain, be it at the forefront of catching poachers, providing the legal and legislative framework to ensure our national heritage remains for future generations to benefit from, or working with communities to ensure the socioeconomic drivers of wildlife crime are mitigated and communities see the benefit of wildlife in its live and natural state, as opposed to its in its poached state.

As a wildlife laboratory, we provide research, forensics, and general genetic services. From the perspective of the EWILD laboratory and its operations, in an ideal world where there is no poaching, our forensic sector would be idle. However, in reality there is poaching, so prevention needs to have a much more comprehensive and complex measure of success.

Are you hopeful for the future of wildlife around the world?

As detailed in African Ark, the latest book written by Ara Monadjem, conservation is about people. People are the biggest hope and threat to conservation. We humans need to integrate conservation into the very fibers of our social, cultural, and political system. It is easy to window-dress our efforts or spin existing beliefs or practices through a conservation lens, but essentially we need to challenge our fundamental assumptions and change how we operate and function as individuals and as a society. Is it impossible? No. Will it be easy? No.

I’d like to be hopeful about most things in life. Evolution teaches us that species must adapt to survive. This includes humans. With over 75 percent of our emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases being zoonotic in origin, if we humans we do not change how we interact with the natural world, then it is us who will suffer the most in the end. Throughout millennia, pandemics of zoonotic origin have had a tremendous negative impact on humans. Let’s consider HIV, a disease of zoonotic origin very close to our country’s heart, and one we are still dealing with; Ebola, in other parts of our continent; and, most recently, COVID-19. We should take these zoonotic diseases as warnings to human society that we must change the status quo regarding how we interact with wildlife. By helping wildlife, we humans stand to benefit the most.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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