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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


The future of digital poachers – where to for digital conservation?

By isabellamanghi, on 29 July 2019

MPA student Isabella Manghi reflects on her interest in Digital Conservation which she explored as part of her Digital Technology and Public Policy degree at UCL STEaPP.

Image of elephants

© Isabella Manghi

The effects of the climate crisis together with factors such as the expanding human population, pollution, and a lack of sustainable development have led to the endangerment of many species. Biologists, researchers, charities and international organisations are desperately fighting to preserve our biodiversity and therefore proving essential to research on behavioural patterns and the effects of the climate on different species.

Biologists, organisations and charities have traditionally employed locals to track certain animals, but recently, digital tracking, which can take the form of mounting collars onto animals, has emerged as a method to facilitate crucial knowledge production within the conservation community. Through the application of technological, inter-connected systems, the opportunities to study diverse species have increased. Yet, there are eminent problems associated with these systems, many of which are vulnerable to exploitation and misuse, including allowing poachers to track down and hunt endangered species to the benefit of their bank account.

Let’s track!

Digital tracking emerged in the early 1990s. It became popularised by the early 2000s and has been commonly used in wildlife parks ever since. The benefits to digital tracking are numerous; technology, such as drones and live-feed cameras, offer support to the national environment, wildlife and law enforcement agencies. Camera traps, one of the more traditional methods of tracking and monitoring animals and wildlife without human interventions, have been used for years in order to study certain animals, their behaviours, and to capture them through images. ​Camera traps are now also being used to track poachers​, with the more recent and modern models including video feeds, automatic triggers, heat sensors, and acoustic elements that are transmitted quickly and efficiently to scientists and law enforcement.

Radio collars, which originally only monitored an animal’s movement, have been modernised to allow biologists, conservationists and researchers to help in the battle against poachers. The collars can be used to track an animal’s health, speed, and location, and when two animals who wear collars meet, their information is fused together in order to expand the scientist’s network. These advancements in technology have allowed scientists to understand what behaviours animals have when they encounter a poacher. For example, when an animal’s ranging pattern changes, this suggests the presence of a poacher, and law enforcement can be notified and prompted to investigate.

What are some of the drawbacks of digital tracking?

Despite the scale of benefits that are offered by these systems, there is an increasing number of examples that highlight the vulnerabilities of digital tracking. For example, due to the interconnectivity of these systems many run the risk of being hacked. This phenomenon was first reported in 2013 when hackers tried to break into the email accounts of staff at the Satpura-Bori tiger reserve in India. The attackers were looking for the location data from the GPS fitted Bengal tiger.

When the matter of an endangered species is the highlight of these vulnerabilities, poachers can take advantage of them, track the animals and kill them for their own benefit. These animals are often sold for meat, their skins or for their bones and tusks. The demand for these animals is often due to culture, religion and traditions that are embedded within some societies. For example, in Japan whales are sold and used for their blubber and their meat due to the believed qualities of these products. In Russia, lion skin, tiger skin and giraffe skin, are culturally a sign of wealth, and these products fetch a high price on the black market. In Africa, Ivory from the tusks of elephants and rhinos is used to carve religious figurines. In order to extract the tusks, these animals must be killed.

Miniature single-chip camera​

Miniature single-chip camera​ by Microwave Telemetry, Inc

Poachers use many methods in order to find, track, hunt and finally sell animals. A specific exploitation method that recently emerged relates to social media platforms such as Instagram. The platform’s algorithm facilitates these illegal wildlife traders. As soon as a potential buyer likes a picture of one of the animals, or follows the seller on the platform, Instagram’s algorithm begins to generate similar pages and accounts for the user to follow, thus putting them into contact with more wildlife traders.

Instagram has aided the trade of wildlife to such a point that smugglers post their WhatsApp numbers under the posts where they are offering to sell their animals. These same sellers also post photos of their animals being smuggled across international borders and many buyers show-off their purchases on Instagram. One specific case-study showed exotic animals being kept in a residence in the UAE, a country where it is illegal to keep endangered species as pets, but officials have not confiscated the animals.

How does this topic connect to UCL STEaPP?

The study of digital technology in conservation attempts is rather niche. Still, the MPA in Digital Technologies and Public Policy allows for students to pursue their academic interests and investigate issues not commonly explored. This challenges students to think outside of the box while applying the knowledge that has been collected throughout the year. Digital conservation is an interdisciplinary issue that must be addressed by policy makers, biologists, conservationists and techies alike.

The MPA tackles how to address interdisciplinary issues – for example one of the main drawbacks to using digital technologies in the fight against poachers is that they can be exploited to enable the illegal wildlife trade. Illegal trade databases are used on both sides of the fight. On one hand, organisations have set up databases where they track illegal trade, such as that of elephant ivory; Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). However, on places such as the dark web, it is easy to find anonymous traders who sell wildlife products such as pangolin scales, or even baby chimpanzees as pets. The rise of the internet has facilitated these networks, as on the dark web, everyone is anonymous, and networks are easily forged. Other platforms such as Instagram also include sellers, the most common of which sell baby tigers and baby primates.

The MPA has allowed me to expand, grow and mature my academic thought and discover this new-interdisciplinary community that encompasses both conservation and the digital world. Through the course I have been able to study and write about the issues that are faced within digital conservation, something I could not have imagined myself doing previously.

This problem is still wide-spread despite international efforts, however the plight for animals and against the illegal wildlife trade must continue, networks and online communities such as ​WildLabs organise themselves around the interests of animals and how digital technologies can help them. This community meets frequently online and in London.

If you are interested in continuing the conversation with Isabella, follow her on Twitter @IsabellaManghi or email her at anna.manghi.18@ucl.ac.uk

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