It’s widely accepted that only an estimated 10% of trafficked ivory is intercepted by law enforcement. (Wittig, T., Haenlein C., and Smith, M L R. 2016. Poaching, Wildlife Trafficking and Organised Crime: Myths and Realities. Whitehall Paper 86, RUSI.) At a 10% rate of interdiction, organized criminal networks can easily write off that loss as the cost of doing business, or price it in to the end product. In reality, nobody actually knows the portion of illegally traded ivory seized by law enforcement, and the 10% figure is a best guess.
Despite the difficulty in obtaining precise figures for illegally trafficked wildlife products globally, many around the world are beginning to understand the negative effects of poaching and wildlife trafficking on our planet’s biodiversity, security, and even the legacy of our generation. In turn, wildlife crime has rightly become a point of interest in media, government, and even in business sectors to some degree.
At the Kenya Wildlife Service’s headquarters at the edge of Nairobi National Park, it’s not uncommon to see several small groups of people standing outside the entrance to the main building. But these small groups of (mostly) westerners aren’t tourists. Instead, they’re armed with handfuls of business cards and a slideshow presentation hoping to get an audience with one of the world’s best known wildlife services in order to sell a new, innovative piece of technology that will revolutionize conservation; the silver bullet that KWS and similar organizations have been waiting for to stop poaching and wildlife trafficking in its tracks. The vast majority of those silver bullets exist solely as a slideshow presentation or have been proven “successful” on a morsel of conservation land so small and well connected with wifi and cellular signals it might as well be considered a zoo.
On one hand it’s inspiring to see so much interest in improving wildlife security and solving some of the gravest challenges facing the existence of some of the world’s most iconic wild animals and landscapes. On the other hand, profit and prestige, or even cultivating an image of social responsibility oftentimes compete with the more noble cause advertised. Despite this, certain technologies are indispensable enablers that conservationists cannot fail to leverage. And it has more to do with how technology is integrated into effective wildlife security processes rather than trying to apply the most cutting edge innovations in Silicon Valley to save elephants.
We view technology as a kit bag of tools and enablers that fit within a battle-tested and deliberate process for solving security problem sets; and make no mistake, poaching and wildlife trafficking is a security problem set at its core – not a biology, ecology, or other “ology” (to include technology) problem set. So as long as a piece of technology supports (and not replaces) the security process then it can be effective.
Oftentimes in conservation we hear the word “technology” combined with the term “intelligence-led.” Intelligence-led is now one of the most hackneyed terms in conservation. I still don’t know exactly what some people mean when they say that they’re “doing intelligence-led conservation.” What I do know is that despite an overwhelming amount of effort, money, and innovative ideas, we as conservationists haven’t yet succeeded in stemming the flow of animal parts from the beautiful creatures on which they belong into the hands of criminal networks and consumers globally.
In government security and intelligence circles, intelligence-led is used to describe the concept that intelligence should drive operations; that is, intelligence (meaning data and information collected from various sources, analyzed by professionals who extrapolate (ideally) useful meaning that can be used to take productive action) should inform decision-making when planning and carrying out wildlife security strategy and operations. For instance, if 80% of elephants are poached next to riverbeds during the dry season, it’d be wise to send rangers on patrol near riverbeds during the dry season to prevent, deter, or interdict the poachers. Another example: we may have a list of key questions or information needed to illuminate a wildlife trafficking network; we can then leverage our resources to answer those questions (whether it’s through open source research, talking to people who may have helpful information, or other tools and methods), we can create a picture of what the criminal network looks like, where potential weak points lie, and work with law enforcement and conservation partners to dismantle the network. To the extent that technology helps enable or improve this process it’s useful. But if the technology replaces the process, or acts in lieu of this process it becomes counterproductive.
I’ve been asked a number of times by well-meaning supporters “How are you using IoT [internet of things] to fight wildlife crime?” and “What are you doing with AI?” My response is always “How should we be?”
Of course, these are legitimate (and maybe important) questions in a world where groundbreaking technologies are transforming our lives and creating vast amounts of wealth in ways never imagined, and the latest tech buzzwords are constantly expanding our vocabulary. And as conservationists, and even as security and intelligence professionals we need to leverage a wide network of partners to tackle a challenge as severe as the global illegal wildlife trade, and must be pushed by our supporters to find the most effective solutions. And to the extent that IoT, AI, AR, Big Data, and Blockchain can be truly useful in stopping poaching and wildlife trafficking, we should use them, but simply combining them with the word “conservation” and placing them in an advertisement or social media post is likely counterproductive.
So how do we use tech in wildlife security in reality? In East Africa we use WhatsApp. Part of our wildlife security process relies on reporting from the field. Our team has trained community rangers near Amboseli National Park in Kenya on a simple reporting format called a “SPOT Report” adapted from the US military. The report essentially consists of the 5Ws and a few bits of other important information from each patrol. The rangers are able to use that format and send a WhatsApp message from their base camps to an analyst team that reviews the data, combines the data with other information from open source research and other reporting, and makes recommendations to the field commander on operations. Reporting has increased exponentially since we introduced the process on WhatsApp and we were able to save 377 animal lives and two human lives (both children) in 2019 in that landscape alone. Why WhatsApp? Because that’s a technology a lot of people in East Africa already use. We could try to convince our partners to adopt a new app or we can meet them where they already are.
Like the majority of people in the world, wildlife traffickers use the internet. The web, social media, and messaging platforms are now part of the landscape where conservationists and law enforcement need to operate as much as national parks and ports of entry. Because of this, we help train some of our partner organizations on how to leverage online tools and technologies to collect important data points, and meet the criminals where they’re operating, whether that’s online, offline, or both.
We also assist our partners to leverage digital forensics tools and other technology applications to help generate leads for law enforcement and further piece together the structure of criminal networks, decipher how those networks operate, and identify roles of particular individuals within the networks. But equally notable is the fact these tools only help us better carry out our methodology, and on their own (or not applied correctly), they’re no more effective than using a screw driver to hammer a nail. Or eating soup with a knife, to borrow an analogy from Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s eponymous book.
What’s going to determine success or failure in the global wildlife security challenge facing us today are the people and organizations implementing solutions, and ultimately our supporters. Technology is a critical tool, but it’s only as good as the people who are using it, and its ability to be applied to a particular set of challenges and threats to wildlife. More important than technology to fighting wildlife crime are those who are fighting it – particularly their expertise, competence, and methods.
-Nick Hanauer, tenBoma Director