Center for Environmental Forensic Science

About the Center

Note: Website is currently under construction as it transitions from the Center for Conservation Biology to the Center for Environmental Forensic Science.  Some content may be unfinished or changed in the upcoming weeks.  Thank you for your understanding.

Co-Executive Directors Board of Directors Executive Committee UW Faculty External Faculty Government Agencies NGOs Private Sector Staff Conservation Canines

The Center for Environmental Forensic Science (CEFS) aims to advance forensic methods and opportunities to disrupt and dismantle transnational environmental crimes through collaboration across multiple disciplines and domains.

Transnational crimes have grown rapidly by capitalizing on a burgeoning world trade. Nearly one billion containers shipped worldwide on marine vessels provides enormous opportunities for criminal organizations to conceal large volumes of transnational environmental contraband shipments. This is producing unprecedented negative impacts on biodiversity, health, economies, and national security.  Advanced forensic methods and opportunities are needed to address this problem.

CEFS is a collaboration of diverse scientists, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies, non-government organizations and the private sector, devising strategies, tools, and opportunities to discover and disrupt operations of transnational criminal organizations. We collaboratively determine what we need to know to strengthen investigations and prosecutions, develop and validate the combination of tools needed to achieve those ends, and capitalize on our collective skills, experiences, and connections to maximize their application where most needed.


UW cherry blossoms in bloom in the Quad during sunset

The Center is based in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, but includes collaborating faculty from nearly all colleges at the UW. The UW Department of Biology is among the top ranked biological sciences programs in the nation with four National Academy of Sciences members and four endowed chairs including the Center’s director. The department has identified conservation biology as one of its top academic priorities for the next decade.

The caliber of our home department, coupled with the meaningful and exciting problems the Center is addressing, draws some of the best minds in the nation to tackle these conservation challenges. The Center, in collaboration with its home department, is developing a strong curriculum in conservation biology and a cutting-edge research program that places new knowledge in the hands of students, as well as government and non-government wildlife decision makers.

The Center provides new research opportunities for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students and helps the department meet educational demands from the growing number of students pursing conservation biology-related degrees.

Focal Species

We are currently focused on four areas:

  1. Trade in elephant, pangolin, and rhino parts out of Africa. These items constitute some of the largest shipments moved worldwide and are frequently comingled. Elephants are the largest land mammal and rapid decline is having widespread impacts on co-dependent species that are reliant on the natural disturbances elephants cause to the environment. Pangolins are currently the most poached mammal in the world.
  2. Illicit trade in timber harvested from Africa, Asia, Central and South America. Collectively, the illegal timber trade is a $150 billion industry causing enormous damage to habitat, climate and biodiversity.
  3. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, another high profit area ($30 billion/yr) that is causing enormous damage to ecosystems and economies as well as perpetuating human trafficking of workers.
  4. Pathogen tracking associated with the above illicit trades.  As COVID-19 has demonstrated, pathogens from unregulated consumption of wildlife can have global consequences, affecting – among other things – human health, economic stability, and society at-large.

Notably, while we focus on the above tasks, these tasks also serve as model systems that are applicable to other species.

Specific Goals and Tools

A primary goal of CEFS is to prevent contraband from entering into transit, where it becomes more expensive and difficult to trace. This goal is best achieved by stopping transnational crime organizations (TCOs) that – while small in number – move the majority of large volumes of contraband out of source countries. TCOs are the chokepoints, often operating for years, consolidating and shipping large containers of contraband out of marine ports. Stopping these organizations creates a bottleneck in the trade that also eliminates the buyers that poachers depend on.

While shipment seizures are limited, they can provide an enormous amount of information when they do occur. For instance, they can tell us where was the animal poached and whether the contraband in one seizure can be linked to another, potentially identifying the TCO responsible for both shipments. We are developing a diversity of complementary measures (e.g., DNA, isotopes, chemistry, pollen) that we combine with obtained physical evidence (e.g., shipping location, shipper) to obtain this information  This requires government collaboration and trust, garnered through long-term government and NGO collaborations.

We work to collaborate on all levels because transnational crimes cannot be adequately investigated if the data are isolated.  A single TCO may get contraband from a small number of areas where wildlife are most abundant, but has a strategy to create confusion among law enforcement and other investigators by shipping containers through a large number of countries before reaching the end destination.  Seizures can be made in any of those countries making transnational collaboration vital to effectively combat this trade.

We are also developing tools (RAS dogs, Xyltron, hand-held spp ID device) and using our research findings to increase interdictions and rapidly establish probable cause among TCO leaders and members.  This increases the availability of seizures and provides the first step of ensuing traffickers are thoroughly investigated.

Notably, we have found that the timber trade and IUU fishing have the added challenge of intermixing of legal and illegal trades.  Our efforts to determine the origin of seized products is, thus, especially important when working to stop the illicit trade of these products.  Seized shipments also provide early indications of potential emergent diseases in the large volume of trafficked material.

Education, outreach & capacity building

We aim to train the next generation of forensic scientists by providing real, hands-on opportunities to learn and apply these skills.  We aim to maximize the capacity of our collective through international collaboration and training, capitalizing on one another’s expertise and filling our gaps.

We also rely on media to help communicate the importance of this work and transnational collaboration.