Smartphone App Allows Tourists To Monitor Illegal Wildlife Crime

The trade in wildlife is the third most profitable illegal activity. USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr CC BY 2.0
Josh Davis 12 May 2016, 14:19

When walking through a market on holiday, and you spot what you suspect is an endangered species for sale, what should you do? Ideally, you’d report it to the authorities, but often this can be difficult, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language. Well, in a bid to help track the illegal sale of animals and their products, conservationists have developed an app for your smartphone that allows users to report anything they see, called Wildlife Witness.

The trade in endangered wildlife is a multi-billion dollar industry. Sales of these products, from timber to tigers, can reach astronomical prices, with rhino horn now thought to command upward of $66,000 per kilo. In many cases, the money made from these markets funds criminal and terrorist organizations around the world. But the scale of the problem, and its crossover into the shady underworld makes it difficult to monitor.

The app has been developed by Taronga Zoo and the wildlife crime monitoring group TRAFFIC. © Taronga Zoo

“Sadly, animals are being illegally killed or taken from the wild around the world to be sold for traditional medicines, luxury food, horns and other parts, restaurant dishes, fashion items or pets,” explains Dr. Chris Shepherd, the Southeast Asia Regional Director for TRAFFIC, the international organization that monitors illegal wildlife trade, and who helped launch the app. “We want people to be the eyes and ears in the fight against illegal wildlife trade.”

The aim is for anyone who is wondering around markets, whether they are locals or people on holiday, and spots something that they don’t think is right, such as suspected tiger parts, horns or pangolin (the most trafficked mammal in the world) on a restaurant menu, to take a photo and load it onto the app with the location. The developers are quick to stress, however, that people should not put themselves in danger in order to take photos, and if it is too dangerous to do so, then simply logging what they saw and where is enough information.

The aim is for tourists and locals to help monitor the illegal trade in wildlife, such as this pangolin, which has luckily just been rescued. Wildlife Alliance/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

This data will then be sent to TRAFFIC and analyzed by a Wildlife Crime Data Analyst, which over time will allow others to follow up on the information, and help prioritize or highlight any hotspots for illegal activity that are revealed. Developed as a collaboration between Taronga Conservation Society Australia and TRAFFIC, so far the app is focused on the markets of Southeast Asia, which is the global hub of wildlife trade and crime.

As well as having the ability to pin a location and add details about what is seen, Wildlife Witness will also contain information on which species are threatened by trade, how they are frequently traded, as well as the safest routes through which to report any observed illegal activity. 

Main image: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/ Flickr CC BY 2.0

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