article / 7 November 2016

How do Wildlife Crime Experts view Remote Sensing Technologies used to Combat Illegal Wildlife Crime?

As a visiting research scholar with UNODC, Isla Duporge asked wildlife crime experts about their experiences using remote sensing technologies to combat illicit wildlife and forest activities. In this article, Isla shares the results of the survey, including the consensus on what technology is most useful, who is best placed to manage and operate the technology, who should bare the cost, and whether there are any risks in using high-tech monitoring technology to combat wildlife crime. 

By means of a research survey, experts working with wildlife crime were asked a series of questions to find out their opinions on which remote sensing technologies are regarded as most useful to combat wildlife crime, which group is believed to be best placed to fund and manage these initiatives and the risks associated with deploying remote sensing technology to specifically target wildlife crime. The results were interesting and unexpected. With increasing research and finance being directed toward the use of conservation technology to combat wildlife crime it is time to take stock of opinions from those working in this field.

The research survey received 57 responses from members of international conservation agencies, government agencies and law enforcement officials. Respondents included employees from UNEP, TRAFFIC, INTERPOL, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, WWF, The Wildlife Conservation Society, Save the Elephants, CITIES, the Lusaka Task Force agreement, the UN Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime and a number of East African government agencies including members of the WILDLABS community. This independent research was conducted during a Visiting Research Scholar placement at the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC) in Vienna, Austria. This branch of the UN is responsible for dealing with Transnational Organised Crime, since 2010 wildlife and forest crime has fallen under its mandate, releasing the World Wildlife Crime Report in May 2016.

Seized Shipment of Illegal African Elephant Tusks, Thailand. © WWF / James Morgan 

Transnational trafficking of illicit wildlife products forms the fourth largest illegal market in the world with a market turnover estimated to be between $8-$10 billion per annum, ranking just behind the trafficking in drugs, arms and humans (CITES, 2013). Criminals involved in the trafficking of wildlife also support other illegal activities, such as money laundering, corruption, piracy, document, tax and customs fraud and human trafficking. Although no species makes up more than 6% of illegal wildlife seizures, the trade in elephant tusk and rhino horn often spring to mind when one refers to wildlife crime as these species have received heightened attention due to the magnitude of these markets and the iconic and touristic eminence of the animals.

When asked who is best placed to manage and operate the technology, the majority of respondents believe that local authorities should be the main actors, working in collaboration with international conservation agencies. Many respondents believe it is important that national actors own and operate the technology with very few pointing to military and defence organisations as appropriate bodies.

Regarding which technologies are seen as most useful, GIS patrol systems, aerial surveys and thermal/infrared sensors are seen as most essential with the majority rating heartbeat monitors and seismic ground sensors as not so beneficial, however, most technologies received a fairly mixed response and the answer options are by no means exhaustive.

I expected respondents to point to international organisations with funds for nature conservation as the best source of finance. However when asked who should pay the most for the technology, an overwhelming majority (more than half of respondents) pointed to the government in which the animals and forests reside. One respondent pointed out that “these are expensive technologies and in many instances in will not be possible for the host country to meet the costs.”

The final research question in the survey asked respondents whether they see any risks in using high-tech monitoring technology to combat wildlife crime, more than half did and 27 decided to further outline what these concerns are. The most cited risk raised in ten of the respondents’ answers regards the mismanagement of data and potential misuse of surveillance capability: “The use of technology assumes that there is no corruption”. Security breaches were a common concern that would potentially make the life of poachers easier, several answers suggested that criminal syndicates could involve rangers and the technology could be misused i.e. those accessing the technology could seek to profit from surrounding poaching activity and data flows could be hacked to reveal locations of monitored species – the notion of a technology ‘arms race’ between rangers and poachers was also mentioned.

Burnt Ivory Stockpile photographed in Nairobi National Park (2016). Credit: Isla Duporge 

The second most cited risk was potential hostilities between local groups and those using the technology. The risk of “relying too much on tech and too little on locals” who may then “feel slighted by outsiders coming in and trying to ‘fix’ things without their buy-in” was identified. This may then cause “conflicts and a feeling of unfairness arising from the poor living conditions of rural people” particularly when aircrafts or drones are flown over their land and/or home.

Involvement of local communities is necessary to ensure that in resource-poor countries where the local populations have pressing needs; government investment in expensive technology directed at animal protection does not signify further marginalization. This particularly needs to be considered in cases where the benefits from protecting species, i.e. tourism income, is not felt at the local level.

The increasing risk of a heightened militarised orientation to conservation efforts was raised by five respondents: “an overly law enforcement oriented approach may be implemented in countries with poor rule of law and governance” was one concern and another respondent stated “The militarization of anti-poaching efforts is a disturbing trend”. Militarised actions entailing ‘shoot-on-site’ policies was widely cited as being inappropriate in scenarios where poachers are ignorant of the level of illegality, live in poverty stricken conditions and have been hired to perform the kill by criminal syndicates who walk away with the vast majority of the profit.

Conservation technology is very valuable in combatting wildlife crime but it must be used cautiously. It is not until the wider impacts of these technologies are fully understood that the benefits can be best harnessed and the risks involved minimized. This will require continued debate and research over methodologies as the power and use of this equipment increases and evolves.

For a more comprehensive analysis on this topic please find this research project in full here.

About the Author

Isla Duporge recently completed a MSc in Sustainable Development and GIS. For her MSc research she was based at the UNODC Policy Analysis and Public Affairs section Vienna, Austria where she was researching the use of remote sensing technologies to combat wildlife crime in East and Southern Africa. Prior to this, Isla was based at ICRAF in Nairobi were she assisted with a piece of research on Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) projects for The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Isla is now working in Brussels with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on the European renewable energy Initiative.  She is interested in the application of GIS for a wide variety of natural resource management fields and in the long-term she would like to work on this in relation to Wildlife Crime.

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