Five Ways to Fight Wildlife Crime in the Digital Age

From GPS-tagged eggs to smartphone apps, these emerging technologies could help give endangered species a chance at survival

White rhinos graze in Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Denis-Huot/Nature Picture Library/Corbis

Elephants, tigers, sharks and pangolins are only a few of the many animals pressured by the multi-billion-dollar industries of poaching and illegal wildlife trade. The intense demand for certain creatures as exotic pets, medicines, trophies and luxury foods is pushing many species towards extinction. 

In an effort to end this wide-reaching problem, the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge put out a call last spring for new technologies that can be used to stop trafficking—from detecting transit routes to tackling corruption. This competition is an initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, with support from the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Global Development Lab and the international conservation agency TRAFFIC.

The challenge recently announced 16 prize-winning projects selected from 300 applicants around the world. Each winner will receive $10,000 and technical support to put their projects in motion, as well as a chance to apply for a $500,000 grand prize. Here's a peek at five of these high-tech solutions to fighting wildlife crime:

The Trees Have Eyes

Electronic-eye technology, or E-eye for short, provides around-the-clock monitoring of sensitive regions. This system combines short-range infrared cameras with long-range thermal and motion sensing devices that are mounted at the top of watch posts positioned throughout a park.

It’s creators, Ravikant Singh and Raja Brij Bhushan of Binomial Solutions, saw the challenge as an opportunity to bring wildlife crime tech into a new era. “New technologies are taking over the world, except for this particular field,” says Bhushan.

The real-time monitoring system watches over a park day and night, alerting response teams with a text message or email at the first signs of human movement in restricted areas. It gets teams on the ground before a poacher can do harm. One of the many notable features of this tech is that it works in all conditions—day or night, sunny or stormy—when human monitoring is either not possible or less effective.

The engineers have installed the system in three parks in India. Since the first went live in 2011, illegal entries have been reduced drastically, says Bhushan. “People have this fear that ‘if we go, we will be trapped,’” he adds. With their winnings in hand, the duo hopes to install the tech in at least three or four more parks in the coming years.

Searching Media For Trends

The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project monitors worldwide media to create a searchable database to track trends in wildlife crime. “The idea of the project is to render the world computable,” says its mastermind Kalev Hannes Leetaru. “We have satellites in space and sensors on the ground to measure the Earth with incredible resolution,” he says. So why not in media?

Sponsored by Google Ideas, GDELT scours broadcast, print and web news. The program translates media from 65 different languages into English, with 35 more languages translated by human partners. The system then catalogs all of these reports into a massive searchable database.  

The firehose of information lives in the Google Cloud and can be pulled down to create some impressive large-scale data visualizations on a variety of problems—everything from wildlife trafficking to evaluating world happiness. The map above, for example, displays the sites of wildlife and environmental crimes called out in nearly 30,000 articles from February 19 to June 2, 2015.

These global visualizations make connections that may have previously been overlooked and emphasize the breadth of the issue. “It’s not just elephants in Africa," says Leetaru. "It’s really a global phenomenon.”

Looking ahead, Leetaru hopes to use the winnings to develop an alert system that can track emerging trends in the cataloged media. The idea is to get the information necessary to put people on the ground, searching for poachers in the right places at the right times.

There’s an App for That

Bird keeping is a popular hobby and often a sign of status in Indonesia, but it has led to extreme pressure on the region’s native songbird populations. 

The problem is twofold, according to the nonprofit Planet Indonesia's website. Though there is great pressure on local songbird populations, the trappers, who often live in rural communities, have no other options for income. Since many songbirds will readily breed in captivity, Planet Indonesia plans to provide trappers with the tools to start breeding programs. This means providing them with both the start-up costs as well as the necessary skills to breed birds and run a fledgling business.

The second issue is effective enforcement of laws. Birds are often sold in small markets throughout Indonesia, so little is known about the true severity and extent of the trade, making it challenging for local law enforcement to tackle the problem.

To address the issue, the group is developing a smartphone application that allows citizen scientists to discretely identify and record bird species spotted in markets. A user can pretend to send a text message while logging other vital information, such as price and origin.

One Egg Is Not Like the Others

Central American turtles are in trouble: Of the five species of turtles that inhabit the coasts, four are endangered and one is threatened. The coastal people of Central America have long relied on sea turtle eggs as a food source, but in recent decades the trend has moved inland and spread to the cities, increasing demand and rates of poaching, explains Sarah Otterstrom, executive director of Paso Pacífico, a group working to conserve and restore Central America's Pacific coast.

On beaches without poaching defenses, nearly all nests are destroyed, which spells doom for a species that doesn't breed until 20 to 30 years of age, Otterstrom says. And the poachers, who usually work at night, aren't easy to follow. “Once the eggs leave the beach...we don't know where they go," she says. "We don’t know the major trade routes or the primary markets where they are being sold.”

The team at Paso Pacífico has devised a way to track these eggs, using GPS-tagged dummy eggs that look, feel and weigh the same as a real egg. The group will partner with a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara to 3D print the egg mold. They then plan to work with Hollywood set and costume designers to make these doppelgängers indistinguishable from the real things.

For a pilot program, the team plans to slip these fake eggs in with the real baby turtles-to-be at a site in Nicaragua. They hope to try out a variety of GPS tracking technologies, including tags much like those used in stores to prevent shoplifters, explains the project's managing director Eduardo Boné-Morón. The eggs will also be marked with a forensic marking solution, which could allow police to track the origins of any seized eggs. Organizers aim to not only deter poachers, but also to identify the trade routes, so that other nonprofits and government organizations can better tackle the problem.

"We don’t want to just catch the poachers," says Boné-Morón. "We really want to understand where the demand is coming from."

DNA Sampling Made Easy

Rhinoceros populations are in steep decline as poachers seek out the regal creatures for their horns—prized as a symbol of wealth and used in traditional medicines. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the worst of the poaching has taken place in South Africa, where 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014 alone.

Researchers are increasingly using DNA to identify the origins of rhinoceros horns and other products and determine if they've been taken illegally. But, until now, this technique for tracing crimes against rhinos has been limited by poor sample quality and red tape.

The Rhino DNA Indexing System (RhODIS) aims to solve these problems, bringing standardized and easy-to-use DNA analysis methods to the field. This project is the brainchild of a group at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria, who first began cataloging rhino DNA in hopes of creating a database of all wild rhinos.

This Facebook for rhinos can be used as both a poaching deterrent and a prosecution tool. "In South Africa, linking a poacher found in possession of rhinoceros horn to a specific poached carcass supports not only conviction but also increases the sentences," the project's director Cindy Harper writes in an email. The database already has over 15,000 individuals, according to Harper.

Developed in partnership with Samsung, the Electronic Rhino DNA Indexing System (eRhODIS) brings the RhODIS project to our increasingly mobile world. This system uses mobile applications to guide users through the collection of samples and data, which is immediately uploaded into the RhODIS system, Harper writes. Together these systems help simplify the DNA collection process, reducing potential errors and cutting through the red tape.