Harnessing technology: Illegal wildlife trade in the digital age

“We live in the Anthropocene, an era where humans are modifying landscapes at unprecedented rates. We are—because of our demand for land—taking land from nature, transforming natural habitats [of other species] for [our own benefit].” 

This was what Dr. Enrico Di Minin, one of the leading scientists from the University of Helsinki in Finland, warned in his talk entitled Wildlife Trade in The Digital Age: Threats and Opportunities, held last November 26 at Room 509, fifth floor of Yuchengco Hall. Hailing from the Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science, Di Minin specializes in hu­man-nature in­ter­ac­tion, digital con­ser­va­tion, and con­ser­va­tion policy-mak­ing.

Challenging sustainability

During his talk, Di Minin cited a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature that detailed distressing threats to the environment across the planet, like unsustainable hunting, fishing, and harvesting, along with habitat loss and poaching. Rhinoceros poaching, for instance, reached as high as an alarming 1,004 cases recorded in 2013, then peaked at 1,215 in the subsequent year, from just 13 in 2007.

“By 2013, rhinoceros poaching had increased by over 9,000 percent in South Africa,” Di Minin disclosed, having witnessed first-hand the struggles of protecting and conserving these animals over the years. Although numbers have since dwindled from 1,028 reported poaching cases in 2017 to 769 in 2018, the sad reality is that this decrease has only come as a result of the rapid decline of the rhinoceros population itself because of prior unrelenting poaching activities.

In his presentation, the scientist explained that there are regions across the planet recognized as potential areas of exposure to illegal wildlife trade, such as pockets of areas in the United Kingdom and the United States, where species that are in demand in the black market are endemic or can only be found in these indicated regions. The Philippines was included as one of the emerging hotspots of unsustainable harvesting, along with a number of Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, and other countries in Africa like Uganda and South Sudan—both of which are infamously known for rampant poaching of various wild animals.

Taking action

“There is a clear need for action in relation to unsustainable harvesting and illegal wildlife trade,” Di Minin emphasized.

Disclosing his team’s methodology to address the growing issue, Di Minin explained that they obtain data from online platforms ranging from online news articles to social media applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. The acquired data is then analyzed using a deep learning-based content filter—an artificially intelligent software that generates a description of the accumulated verbal, visual, and audiovisual content found in the online data—in order to strategically quantify and track illegal wildlife trade happening across the planet. The team also routinely includes data minimization practices in their approach so that the collected data would be narrowed down to only the most relevant and necessary information.

Some of the preliminary outputs that have been processed are an assortment of different types of illegal items such as rhinoceros horns and ivory tusks, detected across several photos mined from different platforms. The information extracted from their approach has since greatly contributed to the field of Conservation Science, Di Minin furthered, aiding in the visualization and identification of specific areas around the globe that are most affected by illegal wildlife trade. 

He added that the methodology helped the team discern the regions responsible for heavy internet traffic in terms of the number of search queries about endangered species. This enabled the team to form a more comprehensive understanding on the black market of illegal wildlife trade, with the results suggesting that most of the buyers came from European countries that the endangered species are not endemic to.

An unorthodox approach

In an attempt to address this surging prevalence of illegal wildlife trade, Di Minin and his team have developed an unconventional approach that involves using an interface of multidisciplinary methods from advances in the fields of Computer Science, Social Science, and Conservation Science.

“One of the biggest challenges that we are facing is [understanding] whether something is legal or illegal,” shared Di Minin, citing complications that his team encountered when they were in the initial stages of the project due to the ethical gray areas of data privacy. Because of this, his team regularly conducts pseudonymisation—a process wherein identifiable and traceable information is converted to artificial identifiers or pseudonyms—to filter data and respect user privacy.

Further, he mentioned that apprehending the people involved in the black market is only a temporary solution and is a counterintuitive approach to resolve the problem as this is not the root cause of the problem. Instead, Di Minin and his team continuously focus their sights on understanding why the problem exists and how they can effectively disarm illegal wildlife trade on the internet. 

Di Minin concluded his talk by stating that the Philippines is an important case study that should be further investigated. He also expressed his desire to work with more non-governmental organizations, wildlife enforcement officers, and other members from the academe to further the project. Using modern innovative methods, he hopes that these collaborative endeavors can effectively result in forming more comprehensive solutions to mitigate illegal wildlife trade in the world.

By Kent Regalado

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