The villain in Walt Disney’s 1990 animated film the The Rescuers Down Under is a money- and blood-thirsty poacher named Percival McLeach. He lives and works alone in the Australian outback, equipped with little more than his jeep and a shotgun, in search of one giant and potentially profitable golden eagle called Marahute. But this traditional notion of a singular, poverty-driven poacher in search of a get-rich-quick scheme is long gone according to the United States government and leaders at international NGOs.
In recent years, wildlife trafficking has evolved into one of the top five transnational organized crimes—alongside the drug, illegal weapons, and human trafficking trades—with emerging ties to terrorist, rebel, and militia groups elevating the problem from a conservation issue to a growing matter of global security.
“It’s gone from one guy with a shotgun to many guys with automatic weapons,” said Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Asia’s growing middle class—in which elephant ivory is widely seen as a status symbol and rhino horn is thought to have unparalleled medicinal properties—is fueling demand for illegal wildlife products. One intricately carved elephant tusk or rhino horn alone can reportedly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in Asia, according to Jonathan Hutson, architect of the Satellite Sentinel Project and now director of communications for the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress.
Illegal wildlife products reign in up to $10 billion annually on the black market according to more conservative estimates, much of which is believed to end up in the hands of terrorist organizations. In many cases the terrorists are also poachers, or at least funding them.
In recent years, poachers have taken the African continent by storm, often better equipped with everything from vehicles and boots to weapons and technology than the authorities struggling to stop them.
“We’re not talking about the kind of traffickers we’ve had before,” said Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of the Elephant Action League, which released a 2013 report linking Somali terror group al-Shabaab to the elephant ivory trade. “We are talking about very well organized groups able to confront whatever the law enforcement agencies do in a very provocative way.”
“If you’re a terrorist, or a rebel or militia leader, an elephant or rhino is like a walking ATM and you want to cash in before your competition does,” Hutson said. “Poaching is a low-risk, high-reward activity … They’re in a mad frenzy, elbowing past each other to shoot Africa’s last rhinos and elephants.”
Allan described the current movement to stop wildlife crime, with more than 50 governments involved, as unprecedented, attributing the U.S. with taking the lead. In 2013, a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking was implemented by White House executive order, and subsequently released a comprehensive National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking in February.
“In the past decade, wildlife trafficking … has escalated into an international crisis,” the national strategy reads. “Wildlife trafficking is both a critical conservation concern and a threat to global security with significant effects on the national interests of the United States and the interests of our partners around the world.”
One of the strategy’s several initiatives is to “support development and use of effective technologies and analytic tools,” such as those “that can assist with identifying poaching hotspots or addressing the wildlife trafficking supply chain.”
Chief among such technologies being explored is GEOINT, including satellite imagery, UAV surveillance, data visualization, GPS tracking, predictive analytics, and crowdsourcing.
“The task force has really pushed this issue to the forefront and with that, technology—including geospatial—does play a critical role,” Allan said.
One of the first organizations to assert wildlife crime as an increasing threat to national and global security was the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), whose research on the subject dates back to 2008. In June, IFAW released “Criminal Nature: The Global Security Implications of Illegal Wildlife Trade,” perhaps one of the most comprehensive looks at the ties between poaching and terrorism to date.
“The link to organized crime now is there and increasingly in places like the Horn of Africa—looking at links to terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and others that are in fact destabilizing governments across the region,” said Azzedine Downes, president and CEO of IFAW.
Downes laments there are still those who are skeptical about a strong terrorist link, but points to the scale of trafficked goods as proof.
“When you look at the size of the containers confiscated they may be five to 10 tons,” he said. “That consignment isn’t something just anyone can pay for. That’s how we know it’s organized crime. A local villager cannot pay for shipment of five tons of ivory to China.”
And conservation organizations aren’t the only ones making noise about this. Following the White House’s lead, the U.S. State Department has also taken up the issue. In 2012, then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hosted a wildlife trafficking call to action. M. Brooke Darby, deputy assistant secretary with the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, testified on the escalating international wildlife trafficking crisis before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittees on African Affairs and East Asian Pacific Affairs: “Terrorists and militia groups may seize the opportunity to benefit from the wildlife trade. We have some evidence that the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Janjaweed have done so, for example, trading wildlife products for weapons or safe haven.”
Darby elaborated in an email to trajectory: “This problem now transcends nature conservation and poses genuine security challenges.” She outlined such consequences as fueling corruption, undermining good governance, exacerbating border instability, threatening civil populations, and weakening financial stability in affected regions.
In June, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) released yet another report asserting illegal wildlife trade supports terrorist and militia groups in Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Chad, and Niger.
While it’s promising that governments and organizations around the world are taking notice, Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington warns that a precisely concentrated effort must be implemented immediately.
In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) began urging countries to send their ivory seizures to Wasser’s lab, which according to him is the only in the world conducting comprehensive DNA testing on elephant ivory to determine geographic origins. Based on the total kilograms of ivory processed in his lab each year, Wasser estimates as many as 50,000 African elephants are poached annually. With approximately 400,000 wild elephants remaining in Africa—a current loss of up to 50,000 a year has staggering implications.
“It’s quite possible we could lose most of Africa’s elephants in the next 10 years,” Wasser said.
The African rhino population is teetering on the edge as well, according to Save the Rhino International —with approximately 25,000 rhinos remaining in Africa, and more than 1,000 poached in South Africa alone in 2013.
But the illegal wildlife trade also carries a human toll. In the last few years, more than 1,000 park rangers were murdered by poachers in Africa, leaving behind vulnerable families according to Tom Snitch, executive officer of the United Nation’s Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System. But the larger economic and societal ramifications stem from the tourism industry—one of Africa’s largest.
“If you look at the safari tourism business in Southern Africa, about 13 million people have jobs somehow linked to tourism,” Snitch said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out if the animals are gone, the tourists are gone … this would be a very fertile recruiting ground for terrorists and extremists already operating in Africa.”
Wasser believes in addition to curbing demand from Asia in the long term, the immediate solution lies in pinpointing poaching hotspots. In the 1990s, his lab developed a method of extracting DNA from elephant dung, collected samples from across Africa, and created a genotype-specific map. Today, they extract DNA from ivory and match it with the genotype map to determine origin within a 270-kilometer range.
His team has discovered there are far fewer major poaching hotspots than previously thought.
“We need to know where to concentrate our efforts so we can stop this as fast as possible, and that’s what mapping really does,” Wasser concluded.
A Varietal Toolbox
While visualizing poaching epicenters is a critical starting point, NGOs and government agencies are now looking toward geospatial technologies traditionally used for defense and intelligence to take efforts to the next level.
In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) issued a request for proposals in search of an organization to help the agency manage an upcoming Wildlife Trafficking Technology Challenge.
“The poachers and traffickers have become increasingly tech savvy,” said Dr. Sara Carlson, a USAID biodiversity and natural resources specialist. “We’re trying to catch up and beat them at their own game.”
The USAID technology challenges will comprise four major areas, each with their own sub-challenges: movement of trafficked wildlife and wildlife parts; forensics and intelligence gathering; consumer demand reduction; and corruption.
Improved intelligence gathering and management, as well as the detection, monitoring, and prediction of illegal wildlife trade routes, are the areas where the GEOINT Community’s expertise could be most effectively applied.
“Geospatial technologies have a lot of potential to monitor poaching, and in particular geospatial data and analysis can help target patrols more effectively,” Carlson said.
She added USAID hopes to get a fresh set of eyes on the problems surrounding the illegal wildlife trade, and is particularly seeking expertise from outside the conservation world, to include social media experts, software engineers, programmers, analysts, and more.
Similarly, WWF launched its Wildlife Crime Technology Project in December 2012 with the help of a $5 million Global Impact Award from Google. The project aims to create a seamless system of four technologies: affordable tracking systems; aerial and ground-based survey systems; effective ground patrolling by rangers equipped with the Spatial Monitoring and
Reporting Tool (SMART) used by many conservation organizations; and site-based data correlation with wildlife trafficking intelligence and TRAFFIC, WWF’s wildlife trade monitoring network.
“It’s a dangerous business for the limited number of rangers out there in the dark with no visibility,” Allan said. “Poachers may lay an ambush or they may literally bump into each other in the dark. Rangers need to understand geospatially where they are, where the wildlife is that they need to protect, and where the poachers may be in a streamlined way.”
For example, WWF has begun to deploy UAVs equipped with thermal imaging cameras at night in Central and Southern Africa. Allan recalled witnessing their value firsthand: “There was a giraffe 50 feet away from us and it wasn’t until the UAV went over that we saw its glowing outline on the screen. The rangers are far more effective if they can find where the animals are.”
Google has worked with organizations such as Save the Elephants to help track endangered wildlife since 2005, according to Google Earth Outreach program manager Tanya Birch.
Save the Elephants has tagged more than 100 elephants from various families with satellite collars that track their locations in Google Earth. Personnel at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya monitor the elephants from an operations center daily, looking for certain telltale changes in behavior. For example, if an elephant stays in one location for too long, this often indicates the animal is in danger.
Hutson points out that satellite and aerial imagery also hold utility for tracking and analyzing the movement of poachers, including why they choose certain hiding places, their common campsites, routes of travel, and water sources. For example, the Enough Project used DigitalGlobe imagery to help track the Lord’s Resistance Army in Congo’s Garamba National Park. Once at the abandoned site, Hutson was able to take photos of the same gardens and dammed streams discovered in the satellite imagery.
“[Changes in satellite imagery] became a leading indicator of poaching activity because there are no civilians in the park, only rangers and bad guys,” Hutson said.
He added the U.S. Department of Commerce’s recent decision to allow DigitalGlobe to sell its highest resolution imagery is “of tremendous importance.”
“The practical effect of lifting the ban on the sale of [the highest-resolution commercial] satellite imagery is that some of the imaging for which we used to have to rely on drones and aircraft can now be done by satellites,” Hutson said.
Predict & Prevent
Although he describes satellite imagery as “indispensible” for the ability to cover a wider area and avoid jurisdictional obstacles, Hutson added it must be part of a larger toolbox.
UAVs are becoming increasingly popular as a part of that toolbox. Snitch, who is also a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, and his colleagues have developed a program to counteract wildlife crime using not only UAVs but also algorithms to determine where to fly them.
“Everyone believes UAVs are the ‘solution du jour,’” Snitch said. “But you have to do the analysis and the math and really think about where you’re going to put a comprehensive program in place.”
In Africa, his team uses the same model it formerly applied in Iraq and Afghanistan to reveal IED placement patterns and help locate the terrorists building explosives. The process starts with high-resolution satellite imagery, then adds data and runs an algorithm to determine where to fly the UAVs and position rangers.
“So if at night you’re in a huge reserve, based on our model I can tell you precisely where to fly your UAV that night and where to position your rangers to intercept the poachers before they get to the animals,” Snitch said.
In South Africa’s Balule Reserve, this method reduced the number of poaches from nine a month to zero. But the downside is poachers have just gone “down the road” to another location, Snitch said. His next project is to create a coalition of private reserves that will share UAVs, moving them around to generate better results.
“The idea is to create an area of tens of millions of acres, making it very clear it is a no-go zone,” he said.
Snitch added his team is currently in talks with IFAW exploring ways to collaborate.
The opportunity to use various technologies to map layers of data—including where rangers travel, where animals frequent, where poaching incidents occur, and movements across borders—to create a predictive model and preventative solution is the most promising application of GEOINT according to Downes.
“If we could move from a reactive model to a predictive model, I think we have a much better chance of stopping this,” he said.
One of the most significant challenges for applying GEOINT in Africa is supplying the appropriate training catered toward users with varying dialects and degrees of education.
Snitch’s criteria for the UAVs he sends to Africa are simple—they must be easy to use and simple to maintain. He’s in the process of writing an instruction booklet for rangers on how to fly UAVs, describing it as an “IKEA model.”
“My goal is for the UAV to be the equivalent of an Ikea coffee table, with a booklet all in pictures to avoid dialect problems and using one tool to put it together, with everything that snaps in or is color-coded,” Snitch said.
He’s also working to create automated UAV flight plans that can be operated via smartphone.
WWF’s Allan agrees UAVs must be simple to use and also equipped with reliable connectivity in order to integrate data feeds and transfer live video. To help ensure this, WWF has installed radio frequency mesh networks at its sites. Not only do these networks serve as a reliable alternative in areas without Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity, but they are also encrypted.
Snitch has made security a priority as well, encrypting how data is shared from the UAVs to the rangers, in addition to how it is shared among rangers on the ground.
“Not everyone has that,” Hutson said of Snitch’s security initiatives. “Without that key component, you could actually accelerate the rate of poaching if eavesdroppers are able to pick up the information and use it to figure out where the rangers are.”
Hutson noted other unique challenges to Africa are its persistent cloud belt and heavy tree canopy, citing infrared sensors and commercial radar satellites as solutions in these circumstances.
“Rangers could use infrared sensors on drones to detect heat from campfires and warm bodies hiding in the bush,” Hutson said. “Commercial radar systems could be used to peer below the clouds and through the forest canopy to detect physical changes in the environment caused by poachers.”
A Concerted Effort
Making complex geospatial data derived from remote sensing or UAVs easy to digest is the final step in the process, said Stephen Wood, CEO of AllSource Analysis, who formerly conducted analysis to assist the Satellite Sentinel Project’s humanitarian work in Africa during his time at DigitalGlobe.
“For years, organizations around the world have used remote sensing to monitor large animals, but to do so systematically and to stop illegal activity is fairly new,” Wood said. “It’s then what you do with the data that becomes important. One of the lessons the industry is beginning to adopt is packaging and getting it into the hands of the law enforcement officials who could do something about it.”
But without a rapid and well-trained response force to make decisions and execute based on such data, the technology is less effective, according to conservation experts. In order to bolster the promise of GEOINT, foundational needs for an able ranger force cannot be overlooked.
“A lot of the needs are very basic,” Carlson said. “Salaries, boots, tents, vehicles … We should not underestimate how important these things are as well.”
Darby echoed this statement in her email: “Geospatial technology is one useful part of the toolbox to assist law enforcement and foster sustainable conservation-management practices,” she wrote. “However, many countries have a greater need for basic equipment and technologies … to assist in communications, investigations, and other law enforcement areas to target and arrest poachers.”
Carlson added technology must also be nested within a more comprehensive anti-wildlife trafficking strategy that includes working with local governments, raising awareness to deplete demand, and combating corruption.
Allan adds a final reminder about adapting geospatial technology for this unique mission: “There is so much technology out there that could really help this crisis, but the cost and level of technology is high,” he said. “Things have to be kept simple and low-cost for conservation applications.”
GEOINT technologies and applications used for defense and intelligence hold much promise to help stop the conservation and security crises stemming from the poaching epidemic in Africa, but only if applied in concert with one another and as part of an overall global strategy.
“This is a crisis,” Hutson said. “We’ve got to get on this. It’s happening on our watch.”