article / 30 October 2015

Technology to Combat Illegal Wildlife Trade

The illegal trade in wildlife, seafood and timber is emptying our planet’s savannas, oceans and forests. Basic and advanced technology tools can be applied to combat wildlife crime, but these won’t save species unless rangers, resource managers, community-based conservation actors, law enforcement, market monitors and demand reduction champions are empowered to use them. 

An important part of the empowerment process is democratizing access to information on tools that can make monitoring and enforcement work more efficient, and that can deter criminal activity. The Wildlife Crime group aims to forge collaborations and centralize information and reviews from members who are actively using these technologies, to accelerate the pace of research and development, funding, and appropriate uptake.

A spectrum of existing and evolving tools exist for which greater information sharing and strategic advising is needed to increase uptake to combat wildlife crime along the trade chain. These include:


Drones: Drones (Unmanned Aerial Systems) are being explored for a range of conservation applications, including biodiversity inventories, antipoaching patrol support, habitat mapping, fire monitoring, and other uses. While present day obstacles to the uptake of these systems range from engineering and battery life issues, to public privacy concerns and cost constraints, applications of drones hold great promise.

Sensors: A broad range of networked sensors are being developed today. The incorporation of image-recognition software can help to secure Park perimeters and to relay real-time alerts for antipoaching response, among other applications.

Acoustic Monitoring Systems: Acoustic monitoring systems are being developed to relay SMS alerts that can help farmers to prevent crop raiding by elephants, and for a range of other applications.

Wildlife Tracking Devices: The real-time tracking of animal movements can enable more effective and efficient wildlife monitoring for management and security applications. Satellite trackers, GPS-GSM tags and other technologies are increasingly being mounted on collars, embedded in horns, and applied in new and less-invasive ways.

Patrol Visualization Tools: Patrol visualization software such as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) can support law enforcement monitoring (LEM) systems by standardizing the data collection process for monitoring activities, storing geo-referenced patrol data, running basic analyses, creating maps for visual representation of results, and allowing for rapid diffusion and sharing of data between sites. SMART is designed to be far simpler to learn and use than generic Geographic Information System (GIS) software, making it more useful to managers, who often do not have this specialized training. Robust LEM systems can enable law enforcement strategy decisions and planning to be based upon up-to-date, standardized data, allowing managers to respond in a targeted manner to changes and new threats as they arise.

In Tanzania’s 19 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), more than 500 village game scouts are working to monitor species, enforce antipoaching laws and respond to human-wildlife conflicts.

 © James Morgan  / WWF-US

Detection Dogs: Detection dogs are starting to be used more and more in field environments, to support antipoaching units and to track poachers and illegal incursions in Parks, Protected Areas, and private reserves. Uses of detection dogs to combat poaching have shown both challenges and opportunities, and efforts are underway in the conservation community to identify and adopt best-practices.

Camera Traps: Commercially available camera traps are widely used in conservation for species inventories and other monitoring purposes. Increasingly, camera traps are also yielding images of illegal activity in Parks, Protected Areas and wild places that can support enforcement.


GPS Trackers: Law enforcement is increasingly using GPS tracking devices to monitor the movement of suspect vehicles over long periods.  GPS trackers have been placed in illegally traded commodities, including ivory tusks, for controlled deliveries to track movements through illegal supply chains, and further applications continue to emerge.

Remote Sensing: Increasingly, tools are evolving that use remotely sensed imagery to support near real-time and real-time monitoring of deforestation, marine vessel movements, and physical evidence of illegal practices. These tools can be important in providing evidence for raising red flags and holding government, industry and society accountable for illegal activities.

Customs officials in Suvarnabhumi discover a shipment of African elephant tusks from Mozambique. Suvarnabhumi is a major hub for both wildlife and drug trafficking, Thailand. 

© WWF / James Morgan

Big Data: Large amounts of publicly available data exist for domestic and international trade in wildlife, seafood and timber products. There is an urgent need to accelerate the analysis of this data beyond conventional methods, to detect potentially illegal flows involving organized crime rings, and to spotlight discrepancies in global trade protocols that can obscure such trade.  This will help to support efforts by enforcement agencies, NGOs and companies that are focused on legal and responsible sourcing.

Environmental DNA: An evolving tool, environmental DNA (eDNA) presents new capabilities for identifying and inventorying DNA present in water and other samples. Largely used in conservation today for biodiversity inventories, there is potential for eDNA to open frontiers in detecting illegal flows of wildlife, seafood and timber.

Detection Dogs: Detection dogs are increasingly being deployed at seaports, airports and other wildlife trafficking chokepoints around the world, to detect ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts, and other articles in trade; as well as being used to search suspects’ properties. The use of detection dogs to combat trafficking has a range of associated challenges and opportunities, and efforts are underway to identify and adopt best-practices.


Identification Apps: A range of apps are being developed to help consumers to recognize and report illegal wildlife, marine and timber products in global trade. Apps are also being used by enforcement authorities along trafficking routes.

Games: Games are increasingly being developed to engage the public on priority issues, and to lend insights into consumer behavior, conservation psychology, and other relevant fields.

By sharing lessons learned from applications of these technologies in diverse contexts and sectors, we can build from one another’s successes and learn from one another’s mistakes—to multiply our impact. Notice important tools missing from this list? Contact the Wildlife Crime Group Manager: Rachel Kramer

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