Every year about 10 million aquarium fish pass through United States ports, many on their way to new homes as family pets. But first, federal inspectors must leaf through mountains of paperwork on the animals, which are shipped from more than 40 countries around the world.
“Until recently, the [inspectors] didn’t even have wireless access in the warehouses,” says Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability and science at the New England Aquarium.
That’s why it can be easy to miss illegal wildlife trade—for instance, an endangered fish swimming about with other species that’s not declared on a shipment invoice. “Lots of wildlife gets hidden in plain sight,” according to Tlusty. “How do you know what’s in the box?”
Enter the aquarium’s new tablet-based platform that allows people to digitize and quickly track wildlife trade invoices, and then scan for discrepancies or red flags that point to illegal activity. “We want to develop this as a real-time solution,” Tlusty says. Inspectors “can go into the warehouse and use this tablet to decide if they should or should not inspect a shipment.”
The innovation is one of four grand prize winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, a U.S.-based competition that, in 2015, put out a worldwide call for out-of-the-box strategies to tackle the colossal illicit trade in animal parts.
The black market network is worth at least $19 billion—rhino horn, for instance, is worth more than gold or cocaine, and can fetch $30,000 per pound ($13,500 per kilogram) on the black market. During the past 10 years or so, wildlife trafficking has "escalated into an international crisis,” according to the U.S. National Strategy for Wildlife Trafficking.
“The idea is that if we harness the power of the crowd, if we try to reach non-traditional solution holders, we could solve messy, intractable development problems cheaper, faster, and with greater impact than traditional approaches,” says Sara Carlson, Biodiversity and Natural Resources Specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Three hundred innovators from 52 countries submitted ideas to the competition, which is run by USAID in partnership with the National Geographic Society; the Smithsonian Institution; and TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring organization. A panel of nine judges whittled those down to 16 winners in January.
From that group came the four “most creative and impactful” grand prize winners, which share a combined award of $900,000, according to USAID. They were announced yesterday in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is hosting the quadrennial World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In addition to the aquarium, the winners include the University of Washington, which is setting up a system to pinpoint poaching hot spots for pangolin, or scaly anteaters—the world’s most trafficked mammal—by analyzing their DNA. The National Whistleblower Center, based in Washington, D.C., is producing a secure website for anyone to safely report wildlife crimes without fear of repercussion. And because so many animals are trafficked online, New York University is creating a computer model that can quickly identify when wildlife is illegally put up for sale. (See “Fighting Wildlife Crime: New U.S. Strategy Broadens Scope.”)
"Without technological advancements and innovation to combat wildlife trafficking, it is certain the traffickers will win," Crawford Allan, a judge and senior director at TRAFFIC, says in an email. (Wildlife Watch's chief correspondent, Bryan Christy, was also a judge.) "It is a race to see who can outsmart the other: poacher, trafficker, and illegal trader vs. law enforcement and conservation."
Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology at Duke University, sees the competition as “a way of ensuring that you’re not doing business as usual.” (See "11 Ways Technology Stops Crime Against Endangered Animals.")
“The great thing in setting up a competition like this, you don’t constrain the approaches—you go out and ask for people who are thinking of a wild and crazy idea,” says Pimm, who wasn’t involved in the contest.
“It may well be a wild and crazy idea that makes this happen.”
But why should people far removed from the rain forests of Southeast Asia or savannas of southern Africa care?
Because “wildlife crime is not just a conservation issue”—it also undermines economic development and national security around the world, Carlson says.
Poachers and traffickers are often linked to sophisticated international criminal networks, which take advantage of a country’s weak law enforcement, porous borders, and corrupt officials, she says. Not only does this destabilize local governments, it can discourage other countries from developing and investing in the country where the trafficking occurs.
By poaching animals, wildlife trade also threatens burgeoning ecotourism, a mainstay of many economies. African elephants, for instance, can be worth 76 times more alive than dead, thanks to people willing to pay a lot to see them in the wild.
And, of course, by removing animals from their native habitat, wildlife crime destabilizes ecosystems too. The roly-poly pangolin, native to Africa and Southeast Asia, offers essential services to the natural world, both by improving soil quality through its digging and keeping some pests in check. A single pangolin can eat 70 million insects a year, Carlson says. (See “Pictures: 8 Amazing Animals at Risk From Wildlife Crimes.”)
Biologist Luke Dollar notes by email that the “winners all propose valuable techniques and tools to intervene at various stages in the transfer and trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products, and I congratulate them and appreciate their efforts.”
But says Dollar, program director for the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, who was not involved in the contest, “I must admit I would have liked to have seen a focus closer to preventing the take of species from their habitats and the field.” Once products are caught in the commerce chain, this means that losses to ecosystems have already occurred—“the bomb’s already gone off,” he says.
He says the Big Cats Initiative works to stop people from taking wildlife in the first place, for instance by placing detection dogs at checkpoints in and around national parks. In doing so, “we seek to retain big cats and their prey upon the natural landscapes where they belong.”
The Road Ahead
The contest winners have a lot of work ahead: “They are quickly going to get up and running during the next year, implementing solutions on the ground,” says USAID’s Sara Carlson.
For instance, the University of Washington winners will gather genetic samples of pangolins in Asia to create a robust genetic database. Understanding exactly where pangolins are coming from can help law enforcement better intercept the illegal activity. (Also see “Happy Ending for Smuggled Pangolins.”)
Carlson adds that USAID will help winners make the most out of their projects, for instance by introducing them to potential partners that can further their technology.
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