Wexford scientist in ivory fingerprint breakthrough

By David Looby

Published 10/11/2015 | 00:00

LEFT: Dr Leon Barron, originally from New Ross. ABOVE: Fingerprints on an elephant tusk. TOP: An African elephant
LEFT: Dr Leon Barron, originally from New Ross. ABOVE: Fingerprints on an elephant tusk. TOP: An African elephant
LEFT: Dr Leon Barron, originally from New Ross. ABOVE: Fingerprints on an elephant tusk. TOP: An African elephant
LEFT: Dr Leon Barron, originally from New Ross. ABOVE: Fingerprints on an elephant tusk. TOP: An African elephant

A scientist originally from New Ross has made a breakthrough which has changed policing in countries where poaching occurs across the world.

His discovery has been described as a 'game changer' by crime experts.

Dr Leon Barron, 36, from Mount Garrett, New Ross, has developed a groundbreaking technique to retrieve fingerprints from elephant tusks, which could transform police investigations against poachers and smugglers globally. Dr Barron led a team of British forensic scientists, developing the new technique which uses an advanced form of fingerprinting powder and prepares the ground for its use in the field.

'This is the first time that fingerprinting on ivory has been thoroughly investigated and a practical solution offered,' said Dr Barron, a senior lecturer in forensic science at King's College London. 'The only other study carried out over a decade ago simply showed that fingerprints were unstable and that the clarity of ridge detail was low, making it difficult to make reliable identifications.'

Over 20,000 African elephants are thought to be poached each year, but it had been thought almost impossible to retrieve fingerprints from ivory because of its ridges and porous surface, making it difficult for wildlife police to prosecute poachers. The problem is that fingerprints disappear rapidly on ivory and conventional powders are ineffective even after only one or two days. The new finer powders and their chemical makeup enable them to find smaller and smaller amounts of fingerprint residue meaning that they can be used for much longer.

Dr Barron's team found that they were even able to lift some usable prints for up to 28 days, which was a major breakthrough. The researchers also found that the tests also worked for rhino ivory, hippo teeth and sperm whale teeth.

The trade in ivory was banned in 1989 by international agreement, but a black market continues to thrive. With an estimated population of less than half a million animals in the wild, the ongoing African poaching problem is rapidly driving the species towards extinction. Earlier this year scientists were able to use DNA testing on ivory for the first time to locate the poaching hotspots. They found that most illegally poached ivory can be traced back to just two areas of Africa; Tanzania and nearby parts of Mozambique.

Gary Pugh, director of forensic services at the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard, said: 'The equipment required to put this form of fingerprinting into practice is inexpensive and relatively easy to procure, making it a cost-effective forensic tool to combat wildlife crime.'

While fingerprints have been the detective's friend since 1892, when they were first used to solve a murder, it was long thought that certain substances, such as elephant ivory, would never lend themselves to revealing prints.

Dr Barron's study was published in the journal Science & Justice on November 2. It has since featured in The Times, among other notable English newspapers, and on the BBC World Service Newsday programme. Dr Barron is involved in arranging research projects with the Metropolitan Police every year to answer forensic challenges they face for frontline police officers and crime scene investigators.

The former Good Counsel College student, who is the son of Angela and PJ Barron and brother of Laura, is married to Wendy Hein (of Berlin, Germany), and has one son, Luc, who was born in London in 2013.

'My interest in chemistry at Leaving Certificate level made me go on to study a BSc in Analytical Science at DCU. After that, I did a PhD in Analytical Chemistry at DCU and worked there for a further five years doing environmental science research. I moved to King's College London in 2009 to co-lead one of the longest running and most-prestigious forensic science master's programmes in the world, which is a great privilege for me and a fascinating field. A lot of hard work at school and university has made this a really rewarding career so far'.

Dr Barron leads a research laboratory with a team of 10.

'My main interests now lie in bridging the gap between forensic and environmental science, which is where the study of ivory firmly sits. I also lead other projects on understanding city-wide trends in the consumption of illegal drugs like cocaine and amphetamines through laboratory analysis of environmental waters.'

Dr Barron works closely with Scotland Yard detectives and said developments in forensic science are occurring very rapidly. 'The hope is to now engage more with police and rangers in as many affected countries as possible to trial the new fingerprint technology in the field', he said.

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