By Alice Chen, World Atlas
The world is dealing with an unbelievable spike in the illegal wildlife trade, one that in many ways threatens the past few decades of gains in conservation efforts. For instance, rhino poaching in South Africa increased from 13 to 1,004 between 2007 and 2013, representing a 7700% increase in hunted animals of this type. In 2011 meanwhile, ivory estimated at a weight of 23 metric tons – a figure that accounts for 2500 elephants – was seized in a group of the largest such seizures. Other animals that are threatened include the already endangered wild tiger population, a species whose remaining population number only around 4,000.
Wildlife poaching is a serious and lasting problem that has had particularly noticeable effects in the East African region where demands for ivory and rhino horns have contributed to a cataclysmic decline in the elephant and rhino populations in Kenya and Tanzania. Wildlife poaching is a large area of criminal enterprise, as it’s a big business with lots of money to be made. And over the years wildlife crime has evolved, presenting an array of new challenges to continued conservation efforts. Where once firearms were used, poachers have now moved to snares and poisoning. Poacher’s trade routes and concealment techniques have also evolved. In many ways, these international poaching networks traffic goods similarly to how drugs and weapons are moved around.
Because of the subterfuge involved in the crime, it is near impossible to obtain reliable figures for the overall value of the illegal wildlife trade, but experts estimate that it runs into billions of dollars. Outside of the most well-known poaching examples, like the aforementioned elephants, rhinos, and tigers, a variety of other species are also exploited. Though some use of animal products may be unavoidable in daily life, poaching has reached a tipping point towards a crisis where it is illegal and unsustainable, thereby running the risk of completely eliminating certain types of animals. Here are some ways that countries are trying to fight back and stop this problem from growing further.
8. AI Image Database and Camera Traps
One problem when faced with illegal bones, and other animal parts is the matter of knowing where they came from – specifically if they originated from protected areas in other countries. Fortunately, AI can help. In India, camera traps have been set up everywhere to help identify the unique stripe patterns of tigers within protected ranges. These images go into a global database which can then be accessed to determine if a seized tiger pelt matches any of the identified animals within it – critically allowing for law enforcement officials to locate the origins of seized poaching materials.
7. DNA Analysis / Synthetic Substitutes
When it comes to animal products, not all of them can be identified by sight and look alone. Thankfully there are technologies that exist to help remedy this problem. DNA analysis can pinpoint the sources of seized animal parts allowing for efforts to be made to increase security in the right areas. On the other end of the spectrum, synthetic substitutes created to mimic materials like rhino horn and ivory are in the works, which could entirely circumvent the need to poach these animals in the first place.
6. Predictive System
Another area that AI and technology come in handy is in the direct act of wildlife security. This is referring to actually protecting the animals before they get poached rather than seizing artifacts after the fact. A Southern California professor came up with an artificial intelligence system called PAWS – which he developed with the Uganda Wildlife Authority – that uses historical poaching data and animal observation to locate predicted hotspots for poachers. These hotspots were then patrolled to great success with snares and poached animals found.
5. First Class Protection
A more recent move in China has been the strengthened protections for the Chinese pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal. This new move comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as it shone a light on the risks of consuming wildlife in illegal and unregulated markets. The National Forestry and Grassland Administration moved the protection of native Chinese pangolins from second class to first class, giving it the same level of protection as the giant panda. Basically, by increasing the protection level the species is given greater legal protection and greater effort will be made to improve their habitats and crackdown on their poaching.
4. Kenya Wildlife Service
The Kenya Wildlife Service was established in 1989 and was a uniformed and strictly disciplined group which brought with it a considerable improvement in wildlife security. Today, however, new methods of poaching and trafficking have forced the Kenya Wildlife Service to step up their game. To this end, they’ve focused on eliminating poaching in protected areas and reducing it to the bare minimum elsewhere. The group coordinates with law enforcement agencies, government institutions, customs and border control, and local communities all in an effort to stymie poaching.
3. Canine Detection
Another method used by the same Kenya Wildlife Service as mentioned above is the Canine Detection Unit. The African Wildlife Foundation recently enhanced the Kenya Wildlife Service’s dog unit, which is used to detect contraband wildlife products at airports and seaports. Similarly, sniffer dogs have been used in Kazakhstan with border patrol officers openly sharing their dependence on the dogs’ keen sense of smell. Working on the border checkpoints, these canines are focused on combatting wildlife tracking through the detection of poached wildlife.
2. Educational Workshops
Another key method in combatting wildlife poaching is through education and understanding of the problem. The African Wildlife Foundation leads workshops in various districts throughout Kenya to inform locals, police, officials, and communities about the extent and impact of the poaching and trafficking problem, as well as about the wildlife laws and need to enforce them. Where most other methods on this list look at reducing the supply of poached animal materials, this technique instead focuses on reducing demand by educating and encouraging people to reject poaching and illegal wildlife goods.
1. Trained Rats
Running in a similar circle as the trained canines is the training of rats. These animals are smart, have a keen sense of smell, and as a result, one particular species, the African giant pouched rat, are now being tested to see if they can notice the illegal movement of pangolins and hardwood timber in Tanzania. This innovative and quirky approach is being funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in addition to grants given for rats has also put grant money towards forest patrols and information generation on trafficking routes.