The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is working to put handheld technology into the hands of Africans who can help identify where animals and poachers are located, according to IFAW President and CEO Azzedine Downes. However, there is great concern that involving community members could put them in danger.

“There has to be something that mitigates that,” Downes said. “There are ways that using smartphones with a system put in place where people text code as opposed to some sort of message gives them some level of safety. With the GPS signal in the phone we also have the ability to transmit their location.”

Downes explained this informal system of information sharing is meant to supplement formal systems, which are often classified and corrupt.

“If there’s corruption inside the police force or military or rangers, that information can be easily controlled and manipulated,” Downes said. “So our thinking was in addition to a formal system of data and intelligence transfer we need an informal system to mitigate for internal corruption.”

IFAW hopes to roll out a pilot project testing the use of crowdsourced intelligence via handheld devices in a controlled area of Africa by the end of 2014. The next steps will be determining how to safely and efficiently store and transfer crowdsourced data, as well as who will have access.

Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of the Elephant Action League (EAL), believes there is no hope to stop wildlife crime without “choking the layer of corrupt government officials, politicians, and security officers.”

EAL launched the Wildleaks website in February, billed as “the first secure platform for wildlife crime whistleblowers.” Since its launch, the site has already acquired three promising leaks, Crosta said.

“We’ve involved the media to help launch nationwide campaigns to encourage people to share information,” Crosta said. “This information cannot be used inside the country because some of these people are very powerful and almost untouchable. The only way we can help those countries and the wildlife is from the outside with the collaboration of large media.”

Crosta hopes the project will result in pressure from governments such as the United States or the presidents of these countries to remove corrupt officials from positions of power.

M. Brooke Darby, deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, agreed eliminating corruption is one of the most critical aspects of this fight.

“As useful as technology can be, corruption plays a major role in facilitating the illegal wildlife trade and unless or until countries address it effectively—including through deterrents and prosecution—the benefits of using new technology will be limited,” Darby said via email.

Photo Credit: The Enough Project

Return to feature story: Wildlife Crimes

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Posted by Kristin Quinn

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