Wildlife forensic scientists analyze biological samples that have been collected as evidence and apply procedures to investigate crimes against wildlife.
The primary duty of a wildlife forensic scientist is to conduct laboratory analysis of samples collected as evidence in cases that involve wildlife. This lab analysis may include evaluation of samples involved in cases of poaching, smuggling, animal cruelty, bioterrorism, oil spills, or other ecological disasters. After analyzing the evidence and writing a report, a forensic scientist may be called to testify in a court as an expert witness.
Wildlife forensic scientists must be prepared to develop new techniques and approaches when they are asked to examine unusual or unique samples. They must also comply with many established guidelines and regulations that govern the proper testing and handling of samples.
Wildlife forensic scientists work in conjunction with wildlife inspectors, fish and game wardens, police officers, and others who collect evidence in cases involving wildlife. While they generally leave a collection of samples in the field to the previously mentioned professionals, a wildlife forensic scientist may be called out to assist field work on occasion. Most of their work, however, is conducted in a laboratory setting. A standard 40 hour work week allows forensic scientists to keep regular office hours.
Wildlife forensic scientists may find work with a variety of employers including federal, state, and local government agencies.
The techniques utilized during wildlife forensic work are also readily transferable to other related areas, such as human forensic science or other careers involving laboratory analysis.
Education & Training
A background in forensic science, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, animal science, or a related field is preferable for those seeking positions in this field. A Bachelor of Science degree is the minimum educational requirement for careers in forensic science, and many wildlife forensic scientists have earned more advanced degrees (Masters or Ph.D.). As with most career paths, individuals with advanced education and training have access to the best job prospects.
Wildlife forensic scientists should also have excellent analytical skills, a good working knowledge of how to use lab equipment, and experience with computer-based technology. An impressive assortment of laboratory equipment is necessary for specimen analysis, and the forensic scientist must know the proper use of each machine and the extent of its capabilities.
The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) offers professional certification to wildlife forensic scientists who meet the group’s certification criteria. Applicants must have a B.S. in a relevant field and at least one year of casework experience to qualify for the SWFS certification process. Additionally, the applicant must pass a proficiency exam, complete a performance evaluation, and provide a letter of recommendation from a supervisor in the field.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide specific salary information for wildlife forensic scientists, but it does collect data for the more general category of forensic science technicians. During the survey conducted in 2017, the median salary for forensic science technicians was $57,850 per year ($27.81 per hour). The lowest paid ten percent of all forensic science technicians earned less than $33,880 per year, while the highest paid ten percent of all forensic science technicians earned more than $95,600 per year.
Those scientists working in the Federal government receive many benefits in addition to basic salary including vacation and sick days, paid holidays, access to federal retirement plan options, and access to a variety of health insurance plans.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the growth for forensic science technician careers will increase at a rate of 17 percent over the decade from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all positions in the most recent BLS study. Candidates with advanced experience and education will enjoy the strongest job prospects in the field of wildlife forensic science.
The illegal wildlife trade will continue to drive the need for qualified wildlife forensic scientists to evaluate seized samples and appear in court cases as expert witnesses.