By Derek Markham
Making wildlife trafficking illegal is one thing. Being able to identify it when you see it is another. Mobile apps are giving officials the tools they need to do so.
The fight to protect endangered and at-risk wildlife species depends, in part, on effective wildlife and wildlife product regulations, which define which species of animals, and which parts or derivatives, may be legally traded, in order to clearly define what constitutes a wildlife crime.
But that's only part of the story, as stopping illegal wildlife trafficking requires effective inspection and identification at the point of entry or exit to a country, and while there are many customs and law enforcement officials doing this work around the world, they aren't all conservationists with backgrounds in biology or zoology, so a quick and accurate identification isn't always possible.
By using two of the most powerful tools that are widely available - the internet and mobile apps - wildlife, law enforcement, military, and customs personnel are getting a helping hand in accurately and quickly identifying illegal wildlife products, as well as the animals themselves, in order to effectively stop and prosecute wildlife crimes.
According to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, accurate field identification of illegally traded wildlife and products is "critically important" in detecting wildlife crimes, and with some new easy-to-use decision-tree tools that are accessible via an app or the internet, it's possible to enable better in situ identification, even for those with no formal expertise.
The study, titled "Mobile decision-tree tool technology as a means to detect wildlife crimes and build enforcement networks", presents several case studies of using mobile tools to identify wildlife crime, and found that using these decision-tree tools for species identification "is promising for enforcement of wildlife crimes."
"Law enforcement officials often have only a few minutes to decide whether or not to let an item through a checkpoint. These tools provide a quick check for individuals with no background in biology.” - Dr. Heidi Kretser, lead author of the study
In China, which has the largest global demand for many wildlife species overall, a mobile app called "Wildlife Guardian" has been used by some law enforcement personnel since 2011, which covers some 475 species and provides guidelines for identifying wildlife products correctly, ranging from big cat claws to ivory.
A mobile app called "Wildlife Alert," which is funded by the US Department of Defense, is being developed for US military police, who will run the app on a smartphone for in-situ identification of illegal wildlife products, and the app is reportedly slated to be piloted in Afghanistan. In addition, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been training US military police personnel about products made from illegally traded wildlife, which may often be found in other countries where both the military and civilian contractors may work.
Vietnam launched a web-based wildlife identification tool in 2012, which includes step-by-step guidelines for identifying 152 protected species in that country, as well as many of the commonly traded wildlife products, such as elephant ivory, rhino horn, and tiger parts. Vietnam is not only an end market for illegal wildlife products, but is also an important transit location for trafficking, and this website, which has the endorsement and collaboration from eight government agencies there, provides an effective method of accurately identifying illegal and endangered wildlife products.
By providing quick and reliable methods for in situ identification of illegally traded wildlife, these mobile tools can help stop individual smuggling and trafficking incidents, and can also contribute to larger efforts to monitor and disrupt the supply chains that global wildlife crimes depend on.