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Minority Report for poachers: Can predictive algorithms prevent wildlife crime?

Dr. Meredith Gore

When you think of wildlife trafficking, what springs to mind is likely elephant ivory and rhino tusks. But it also encompasses rosewood, lizards, and pangolins. Estimates for its worth range from $7 billion to $23 billion. With over 7,000 species involved in trafficking — ranging from plants to reptiles to mammals — in practically every country in the world, the problem is dizzying. That’s why Dr. Meredith Gore wants to stop poachers before they cut the tree or kill the animal.

A human problem

Beyond saving wildlife threatened with extinction, trafficking has an impact on humans as well. “I think that the coronavirus, the COVID-19 situation that’s happening right now is just really emblematic of kind of the worst-case scenario,” Gore, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University, told Digital Trends. She describes her science as conservation criminology.

Dr. Meredith Gore
Dr. Meredith Gore, associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University

Pangolins look like scaly anteaters. The mammals are prized for both their meat and scales, which some believe to have medicinal properties. The trafficking route might stretch from the Democratic Republic of Congo through multiple countries to Nigeria and then on to Singapore, said Gore. The Chinese government recently issued a temporary ban on wild animal trade, because pangolins are one suspected cause of the coronavirus.

Animal skulls on shelf
Dr. Meredith Gore

If something is illegal, usually we don’t see it,” said Gore. “And if we don’t see it, we can’t monitor it. And if we can’t monitor it, that means that we’re usually in a position of just reacting.” Among the difficulties with tracking these illegal goods are porous borders. Often countries don’t inspect exports as thoroughly as imports, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. There are many ways to get goods into a country — through air, land, and sea — and they don’t always arrive in their original, more-recognizable form. Bear gallbladder might show up ground into a powder, for example, only discernible with DNA testing. Because the problem crosses nations, it requires cooperation amongst countries with varying levels of resources and differing rules and regulations.

At the same time, traffickers are getting more sophisticated and turning to technology in a variety of ways. Even as national parks are putting up anti-poaching technologies like human-sensing cameras and metal detectors to go off when someone approaches with a gun or knife, poachers leverage GPS and smartphones to track animals and avoid patrols. A 2016 study found there wasn’t much wildlife trade happening on the dark web, indicating law enforcement perhaps wasn’t scouring the regular internet well enough to deter activity there. A year later, researchers found that things had changed, and dark-web transactions were growing.

If we could stop poachers before they have the gun in their hand, though, it could make all the difference, says Gore. As a social scientist, she’s looking at the issue differently than a biologist or botanist. People have been collecting and trading wildlife for ages — look at Marco Polo or the Silk Road. But it’s only been in the last couple of decades that organizations like the U.N. have begun treating it as a crime. While Gore has worked on problems involving sea cucumbers, vultures, and pangolins, she says her real species of interest is humans. “It’s this idea that human behavior and people’s attitudes are really central to being able to use natural resources in a sustainable way,” she said.

What does Cincinnati have to do with it?

By adapting frameworks like situational crime prevention (SCP), conservation criminology can be more scientific and more effectively implemented. SCP uses 25 tactics to dissuade people from committing crimes, things like reducing incentives and upping risks. Gore and her team expanded to 30 techniques and adapted them for wildlife. You might be able to reduce the risk of car theft by putting vehicles in a garage, but you can’t lock up an entire forest.

Some of the techniques involve deterring criminals, including implementing tech like drones and CCTV. Others focus on increasing rewards, such as creating alternative livelihoods to poaching or providing compensation for conservation efforts. “These are strategies and tactics that you can implement on the ground to prevent crime from occurring in the first place,” said Gore.

Dr. Meredith Gore

One important dimension is that while these ideas are taken from the U.S. criminal justice system, Gore doesn’t advocate for fines and prison sentences as deterrents. “Throwing people in jail and really harsh sentences, those have their own follow-on collateral impact on society,” she said. Sometimes offenders have had their lives or livelihoods threatened by wildlife, and the goal is to reduce these occurrences and protect the environment without criminalizing vulnerable members of societies.

If you look a map of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and only focus on the source of wildlife trafficking, you’re missing a large part of the picture, said Gore. Modifying a technique developed for Cincinnati police, Gore has mapped the four “C’s” in crime-place networks: crime sites, comfort sites, corruption points, and convergent points. Where do offenders, or potential offenders, go when they’re not offending? Where are newcomers recruited? If researchers can identify those spots, conservation organizations can put their resources in those hot spots, again in the hopes of stopping the wildlife capturing before it happens. Tailoring a program created in Ohio to regional customs and regulations is paramount and requires participation from locals.

A technical solution?

The same is true for tech solutions. Some research has found that residents don’t appreciate drones flying overhead, even if they’re surveilling for poachers.  In her own research, Gore has found apps aren’t universally adopted by everyone and Wi-Fi can be spotty. “I also do work in Madagascar where sometimes, you know, technology breaks, and then you don’t have anybody to fix it or the spare parts are used for other local problems,” she said. No matter how well-intentioned, she said, “if they’re not implemented in ways that are like locally responsive, and there’s not local buy-in, they’re not going to really go that far.”

Combating Wildlife Trafficking Institute, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Michigan State University

Apps like Wildlife Alert and WildScan help officials identify trafficked wildlife, and citizen-science apps like Instant Wild let anyone help ID species. But Gore is worried that data collected from disparate efforts isn’t going to be helpful unless it’s properly organized. “We need to make sure that these systems are compatible with each other,” she said, adding, “One of the challenges with the conservation community faces is that we’re not really that good at sharing data.”

This is something the UNODC discovered when assembling its 2016 World Wildlife Crime Report. Some illegal rosewood seizures were listed by weight, volume, log count, or number of containers. “We don’t collect data in the same format, which means that even if we want to share data, sometimes we can’t because it’s like comparing apples with zebras,” said Gore. Another concern of conservation criminology is ethnically gathering such data. If the information were to fall into the wrong hands, someone who reported trafficking might be put in danger.

Combating Wildlife Trafficking Institute, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Michigan State University

Yet the data, if properly collected and shared, could disrupt some of these networks, Gore said. For example, she’s been working on Women in Wildlife Trafficking Survey. It’s an area that hasn’t been thoroughly researched, she said, even though “we’re 50% of the problem, we’re 50% of the solution.” Using a literature review, key informant interviews, and a quantitative survey, Gore and her fellow researchers hope to learn more about women who participate, prevent, and observe wildlife trafficking.”One of the things that we’re finding, you know, in some of our work is that in some instances, women and men do things very differently,” she said. “And then, here’s a scientific shocker, sometimes women and men do things the same.” At least in one instance, it’s proven valuable to study offenders by gender. In one Central African country she doesn’t want to name, Gore found that women and men use different modes of transportation to traffic certain wildlife products. “That’s interesting,” she said, “because if you’re only going to target trains as your transport method, you could be potentially missing out on a huge transport route.”

While that could certainly help local authorities, it’s not Gore’s ideal outcome. She’d prefer to get to people before they commit the crime. With the right data sharing, governmental and organizational cooperation, and local participation, she’s optimistic that can start to happen. “It’s a massive amount of resources going into combating wildlife crime,” she said. “So you want to make those resources count.”

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