Women For Wildlife: The Females Behind Taronga Zoo’s Forensic Project

By Marie-Antoinette Issa
on 12 April 2024

Taronga Zoo, renowned for its dedication to wildlife conservation, will embark on a ground breaking initiative with Women for Wildlife, called WildEnforce.  Led by an exceptional group of female scientists – including Dr. Phoebe Meagher, Dr. Justine O’Brien, and collaborators Dr. Vanessa Pirotta (pictured above with Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek), Dr Kate Brandis and Dr Roxanne Francis co-leads from UNSW and ANSTO – this project aims to revolutionise wildlife protection by providing cost effective forensic tools to border security agencies. The goal is to enhance the detection and rescue of illegally trafficked wildlife. Thereby combating the rampant illegal wildlife trade (IWT) which poses a significant threat to biodiversity.

Illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative criminal industry valued at approximately $23 billion annually. Trailing only behind habitat destruction in its impact on species loss. Australia’s unique native wildlife often falls prey to this trade, coveted as exotic pets or exploited for various purposes. However, the lack of reliable forensic diagnostics to identify laundered wildlife presents a major obstacle to law enforcement efforts.

WildEnforce seeks to address this gap by equipping border security personnel with state-of-the-art forensic technology developed by Taronga Zoo in collaboration with partners like Rapiscan Systems. This technology, includes 3D X-Ray CT imaging and X-Ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis. And, enables real time identification of illegally trafficked wildlife and determination of their origins. Whether wild caught or captive bred.

Moreover, Taronga Zoo actively involves the community in its conservation efforts. Particularly encouraging women to join the Women for Wildlife group. Proceeds from this initiative will support WildEnforce, with the aim of raising $100,000 to further advance the project. By engaging women in conservation and technology, Taronga Zoo aims to foster a diverse and inclusive approach to wildlife protection.

The next phase of WildEnforce involves real-time field trials in collaboration with the Department of Climate Change, Environment, Energy, and Water (DCCEEW) at various locations across Australia. These trials will refine the accuracy of detection algorithms. Particularly focusing on priority species and expanding the reference library to include marine species vulnerable to trafficking.

Furthermore, WildEnforce emphasises strategic collaboration, both nationally and globally, to address the complex challenges posed by illegal wildlife trade. Taronga Zoo’s leadership in this domain has been recognised internationally. With its experts presenting their work at prestigious forums such as INTERPOL and the International Association of Forensic Sciences.

In essence, WildEnforce represents a paradigm shift in wildlife conservation. Leveraging cutting-edge technology and female leadership to combat illegal wildlife trade effectively. By empowering border security agencies with the tools and knowledge needed to identify and intercept trafficked wildlife, Taronga Zoo is spearheading efforts to protect biodiversity and uphold global conservation goals.

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