Bonnie Yates, morphology supervisor at the wildlife forensics lab in Ashland, holds the head of a Tibetan Antelope and the shahtoosh, or shawl, made from their hair. The antelope is nearing extinction because it is killed for its hair which is finer than cashmere. 3/17/08 Denise Baratta

Crimes Against Nature

The shahtoosh shawl in Bonnie Yates' Ashland laboratory is so soft it makes cashmere feel like sandpaper.

The small shawl is made from the hair of a Tibetan antelope, of which only a few thousand remain. It's illegal to trade or possess these shawls, which are coveted on the international black market of endangered-species trading.

But Yates' shahtoosh is kept as a standard, a barometer for her work that includes comparing shahtooshes seized by wildlife agents across the world and taken to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland.

"The shawls are so expensive that the countries that confiscate them are loath to have them cross the pond," Yates says in her soft Texas drawl. "So it's cheaper for them to fly me to the shahtoosh than to fly the shahtoosh to me."

From her well-lit Ashland laboratory filled with stuffed critters of all sorts, Yates and her co-mammalogist, Cookie Sims, are helping lead the fight against international poaching of endangered animals, one soft shahtoosh at a time.

Yates is the head mammalogist in the only full-service morphology department in the world's only wildlife forensics lab focused solely on solving crimes against nature.

She is trained to use fine measurements to compare pieces of unknown animal fur to known "standards" in a discipline that is critical to making poaching cases stick in court.

Simply put — before wildlife cops worldwide can make a case of someone illegally trading in wildlife parts, the actual part must be positively identified.

In these cases, that falls on the shoulders of Yates, a former Texas beauty-school dropout and former high school English teacher who broke into the business as a bone-washer at the University of North Texas's archaeology department.

This is wildlife "CSI" at its best.

Agents from around the world send trace elements of animals they ask Yates to identify by comparing them to the enormous cache of previously identified rare animals. The evidence in need of identification can range from the entire tanned hide of an anaconda to a single strand of suspected deer hair found within a poacher's clothes dryer.

When she doesn't have a known standard, Yates will use descriptions and measurements found in books dating back to the 1800s.

Occasionally, she's asked to take the point on shahtoosh cases because she's an expert, having traveled to places such as Thailand and India to make positive identifications.

Yates created a way of identifying true shahtoosh shawls from fakes by comparing the tiny fur fibers just 6 microns wide. She discovered that, under a microscope, the fur of the Tibetan antelope is profoundly different than goat hair for which it is sometimes mistaken.

"It's not a matter of measurement," Yates says. "It's a matter of appearance."

She's so thorough that her work rarely requires court appearances.

Roughly 1 percent of the cases ever go to trial, Yates says. Most end up settled in plea bargains. Only rarely does she take the witness stand.

"I hardly ever know what the case is even about," Yates says. "We try not to get vested in it. We go, do our thing and leave."

Yates is as comfortable in her lab with her specimens as she is uncomfortable at trial.

"It's somewhat jarring to go through it," says Yates, who compares the grilling of a defense attorney as akin to "going through college boards with professors who are trying to get you to fail."

Once, in 1993, Yates caught herself making a mistake.

It was involving a criminal case in which she had to identify the fur of a protected sea otter. She did not have a sea otter for exact comparison, but she believed the item indeed contained sea-otter fur.

After waiting almost two years for the trial, during which time Yates had received a sea-otter pelt, she re-examined the offending fur and found it to be a river otter. The government dropped its case.

"It made me careful never to guess," Yates says. "You must always have a standard to go by."

Not all identifications are as simple as the shahtoosh.

"I've learned how to say 'I don't know' and that's OK," Yates says. "There's a lot of weird things out there."

Share This Story