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The Newest Weapons Against Poachers Are Our Phones

<p> Julie Larsen Maher / ©WCS<span></span> </p>

By Heidi E. Kretser As a conservation biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), I have been inspired and intrigued by all the new technology that intersects with our work in unexpected ways. A few years ago, WCS colleagues of mine helped Thailand wildlife enforcement officials identify tiger poachers using a cell phone one of the miscreants accidentally dropped that held a photo of him proudly straddling his quarry.

At the same time, while the chief reasons for an uptick in wildlife crime in recent years are growing wealth in Asia and expanded access to wilderness areas, some uses of technology have made enforcement more challenging.

The use of night vision goggles with gallium arsenide chips and geo-tagged photos on social media posted by unknowing tourists to locate prized wildlife has rendered the battle against traffickers more lopsided. Throw in the use of the encrypted messages over the Internet to connect buyers and suppliers to new sources and you have a formidable technical arsenal to overcome.

Trafficking of wildlife and their parts is a major driver of species endangerment, threatens local communities, and poses a critical global challenge. Illegal trade of bushmeat and wild animals also endangers ecosystems and poses new dangers to human health through the spread of monkey pox, SARS, avian flu, and other deadly diseases.

Individuals tied to wildlife crime syndicates operating along the supply chain have until recently been able to slip past unsuspecting or unknowledgeable customs officials. At most points of entry in Asia, for instance, law enforcement officers have just minutes and sometimes seconds to decide whether or not to let an item through a security checkpoint. Far too often, illegal material finds its way through.

Meanwhile, military personnel and affiliates posted overseas have significant buying power that influences local markets in the communities and regions where they are based. Many may unknowingly be driving the demand for wildlife products derived from endangered species whose trade threatens wildlife populations.

Fortunately, authorities now have several innovative new technology options of their own to push back against traffickers. Mobile devices and apps we tend to associate with ordering food, paying bills, and checking traffic patterns are now helping law enforcement staff to identify hundreds of wildlife species, reach out to experts, and access resources to identify and help prosecute wildlife crimes.

Three tools have recently been developed that can be operated on mobile devices using a "decision tree" model. Wildlife and wildlife parts can be identified by answering a series of questions based on observable details about the product or animal under investigation. Using a process of elimination, customs or other enforcement officers with no background or training in biology can identify or classify specific animals or animal products.

In China, the world's largest market for many species, officials are using Wildlife Guardian - a smart phone-based app developed by WCS and partners that enables users to identify 475 species that are potentially in the market in China. The app selects the correct match for up to five body parts or features and provides the user with guidelines to identify wildlife products from ivory to big cat claws. Users in China have now downloaded the software on iOS systems, and an Android version in Chinese and English launched in September 2014.

In Vietnam, a transit and consumer country for much endangered wildlife, authorities are using a website called www.giamdinhloai.vn launched in 2012. Users can identify 152 of the country's protected species as well as a number of commonly traded products taken from endangered wildlife such as rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger body parts.

Lastly, the US military police in Afghanistan will be able to use Wildlife Alert, a recently released mobile app, funded by the Department of Defense Legacy Program to identify species commonly traded in that part of Asia. WCS provides training to the US military police on products made from illegally traded wildlife such as snow leopard pelts often found on some military bases.

With the release of these three tools, we must now move into a new phase of investment and close coordination within the conservation community to support their use. For these apps, market share should be secondary to conservation impact. The sharing of images across platforms, for instance, could help to more quickly eliminate misidentified species.

One thing is clear. Smart phones offer great opportunities for disrupting illegal international wildlife trade and contributing to a reduction in demand for these products. While there are many other interventions needed to stop the illegal wildlife trade, these devices and software could very well help tip the balance in favor of conservation in the ongoing battle to end wildlife trafficking.

Dr. Heidi E. Kretser is the Livelihoods and Conservation Coordinator for the North American Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).