Whistleblower Website Targets Poaching in Africa
Since February, WildLeaks has received more than 45 tips and leaks, with at least 28 deemed to be useful.
There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.
James Weliver / USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons
Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.
Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.
Helge Denker / WWF-Namibia
Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.
Centre for Conservation and Research, Flickr Creative Commons
Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.
SMART / North Carolina Zoo
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.
Samir Sinha / TRAFFIC India
In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.
Poachers slaughtering Africa's elephants and rhinos with impunity are often shielded from police by powerful connections, but a group of conservationists has turned to the anonymity of tip-offs to try to stem the killing.
The founders of WildLeaks -- a sort of WikiLeaks for the environment -- say it is the first secure, online whistle-blowing platform dedicated to wildlife and forest crime.
While wildlife rangers face gun battles in national parks with poachers carrying out the slaughter, the online project hopes to target the top-end traffickers who cream off millions of dollars in profit.
"We got, for example, a very interesting leak on a very powerful individual in Kenya, linked to the government, who is behind the ivory trade," said founder Andrea Crosta, a former security consultant and longtime conservationist.
This kind of person "will never be taken out from within. They're too powerful. You need help from outside. So right now, we're trying to gather more evidence," he said in rapid-fire, Italian-accented English.
Poaching has risen sharply across Africa in recent years fueled by rising demand in Asia for ivory and rhino horn, coveted as a traditional medicine and a status symbol.
But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers.Martin Harvey/Corbis
Interviewed in the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Tanzania's main city Dar es Salaam, Crosta is fervent in his belief the online platform can be part of the war against poaching.
After it launched in February, WildLeaks received its first tip within 24 hours. Since then the project has gotten over 45 tips and leaks, with at least 28 deemed to be useful.
The information involved a range of topics from around the world including tiger poaching in Sumatra, illegal logging in eastern Russia and Mexico, and the smuggling of wildlife products into the United States.
WildLeaks passed on some tips to law enforcement agencies, while others were shared with trusted conservation organizations that specialize in the area. Some were also investigated in house. Two WildLeaks probes have already been launched, with another two set to begin in September.
WildLeaks uses encryption and anonymity software to allow those with information to send it safely to those who can do something about it. It is a new way to tackle a long-standing problem, and other conservationists have offered a cautious welcome.
Poaching has risen sharply across Africa in recent years fueled by rising demand in Asia for ivory and rhino horn.Jami Tarris/Corbis
"It does appear to be a new approach within the wildlife crime sector," said Richard Thomas from TRAFFIC, the world's leading wildlife trade monitoring network. "It could prove its worth over time, if useful information is received and directed towards appropriate professional enforcement agencies for follow-up action."
Representatives from the Conservation Group of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which has partnered with WildLeaks to fight the sale of great apes in Central and West Africa, are also positive about the project.
"I think that it's a really smart idea," said Mimi Arandjelovic, a member of the group. "There are also a lot of taboos that people might feel about reporting these sorts of things, so having an anonymous way of reporting it can only be positive."
But the problem with WildLeaks, Crosta admitted, is that in order for the project to be successful, the public needs to know about it and trust the people who are involved. Crosta was in Dar es Salaam to meet potential partners and spread the word about his project.
WildLeaks has yet to receive a leak from Tanzania, even though the east African nation struggles with wildlife crime. A third of all illegal ivory seized in Asia has come through Tanzanian ports.
Crosta, 45, has a background in both business and security consulting, often for governments and multinational companies. In 2011, he said he self-funded an 18-month investigation, going undercover to find sources and meet with traffickers. His probe led him to suggest ivory was providing key funding for Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.
While UN experts disputed the findings, many would back WildLeaks' message: stopping poaching requires action against the wealthy and influential bosses of often extremely well-connected organized crime gangs.
"Unlike others operating in the field... we are not after small-time poachers or traffickers, but the people above them, including corrupt government officials," he said.
No arrests have yet been made, but Crosta attributes this to the newness of the project and the fact that it is aiming for the bigger players in poaching networks.
The spike in poaching, with animals slaughtered even inside heavily guarded national parks or conservation areas, shows that poachers have little fear of tough new laws designed to end the killing.
"You can't just keep going out catching and jailing poachers because there's an endless supply out there," he said, motioning towards the villages of rural Tanzania. "That is not the solution.