How Mobile Apps Are Helping Fight Wildlife Crimes

We know wildlife trafficking has become a huge problem for wild animals and imperiled species, but making it illegal is only part of the solution. Without the ability to identify wildlife products moving through ports, authorities have less power to stop the trade.

The good news, according to a recent report published in the journal Biological Conservation, is that conservationists are successfully developing mobile apps to help authorities working around the world with the identification of wildlife that they believe are helping crack down on the problem.

“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,” said Dr. Heidi Kretser, the study’s lead author.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) looked at case studies on three apps being used that rely on a decision-tree style approach, which lets users identify products through the process of elimination and access support from experts.

In China, which has become the world’s largest market for wildlife products, officials are using Wildlife Guardian a smartphone based app that allows users to identify as many as 475 species and provides them with guidelines to identify wildlife products from ivory to big cat claws.

WCS gives an example of how easy it would be for someone using the app to go into a pet store and identify a bird being sold by choosing characteristics to find out it’s a protected species that’s illegal to sell, which is bad news for the store owner.

According to WCS, the app is supported by CITES Management Authority of China, Anti-smuggling Bureau of China Customs and China Wildlife Conservation Association and as of now, more than 1,173 users have installed the system and previous surveys of users found it to be a useful tool.

In Vietnam, another hotspot for trafficking, authorities are using a website that was launched in 2012 to help detect and prosecute wildlife crimes. Users can identify 152 of the country’s protected species, in addition to commonly traded items including rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger body parts.

As of this summer, the site has had over 8,599 views, with more than 300 personnel from Customs, the Forest Protection Department and the Environmental Police registering to use it.

Last but not least, for the U.S., WCS has been working on Wildlife Alert, a mobile app funded by the Department of Defense Legacy Program for the U.S. military to help users based in foreign countries identify products that are illegal to buy.

In 2012, a pilot survey of U.S. Army personnel stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., who had been deployed or stationed overseas, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, found 40 percent of respondents said they had either purchased something themselves, or had seen other members of the military purchase or use wildlife products.

Now, conservationists hope that this tech which offers quick and easy in situ identification of wildlife parts, and access to experts, will help provide another valuable tool to stop wildlife crimes.

Peter Zahler, WCS Asia Program Deputy Director and co-author of the study also noted that mobile apps have the benefit of being usable where there’s no internet connection and added that, “Information on where illegal wildlife and wildlife products are sold or detected can then be shared with larger Wildlife Enforcement monitoring systems and help disrupt supply chains for transnational wildlife crime.”

Photo credit: Thinkstock

80 comments

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa2 years ago

Thank you

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Jennifer Hayes
Jennifer H2 years ago

This sounds like it could be a step in the right direction to catch smuggling of parts. But there still needs to be heavier presence to keep the animals from being poached in the first place.

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Mandy H.
Mandy H2 years ago

Good news.

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Anne Grice
Anne Grice2 years ago

I like the sound of this Apps but I am concerned about some of the potential users and how will they use it?? Who can be trusted when we see the tons of Ivory that was shipped out from Tanzania in the diplomatic bags when the Chinese President visited Tanzania!! I

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Kathryn Mitchell
Kathryn Mitchell2 years ago

I hope that these apps work and will help to give authorities an edge against the filthy poachers and trophy hunters.

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