At the 2018 London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, we announced the WILDLABS Tech Hub, an accelerator program created to support the development and scaling of groundbreaking technological solutions addressing the illegal wildlife trade, one of conservation's most urgent challenges. The first of four articles featuring our winning Tech Hub entries, this case study showcases Poreprint, a project utilizing artificial intelligence to search the City of London Police Fingerprint Bureau's fingerprint database to improve the forensic understanding and prosecution of those involved in the illegal ivory and pangolin markets. With the support of the WILDLABS Tech Hub programme, Director of Forensic Services Tracy Alexander developed new digital branding and content, allowing this project to reach new audiences and organisations.
The Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) is one of the biggest direct threats to endangered species. To tackle the IWT, national efforts are focusing on identifying people who are involved, or believed to be involved, in wildlife crime. Forensic techniques such as fingerprinting, DNA Analysis, and toxicology are being used to gather trace evidence from crime scenes. Forensic Services at the City of London Police is leading an initiative to help developing countries use fingerprint identification techniques and share forensic information. The Bureau is opening up their data processing and identification technology to local law enforcement teams to help them collect, search, analyse, and share biometric data from crime scenes.
As a winner of the WILDLABS Tech Hub, Tracy Alexander, Director of Forensic Services, participated in our three-month accelerator programme. This was supported by WILDLABS conservation partners, the Foreign Commonwealth Office, the Digital Catapult, the Satellite Application Catapult, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft. All partners offered their resources, networks, and in-kind expertise to help winners scale their solutions worldwide and mitigate threats from the IWT.
The first biometric fingerprint data base was set up in the UK in 1901. Today the UK’s fingerprint database contains the fingerprints of over 7 million people and helps make over 1.5 million detections each year. However, these judicial and law enforcement techniques are not well established in some developing countries. For example, African countries on the front lines of wildlife crime often lack knowledge on how to collect fingermarks, store them, match them with identities, and use these in judicial processes. The City of London Police are pledging to help countries advance these techniques. The challenge for Tracy and her team is how to adapt the technologies and processes for use in remote environments so that tools are easily accessible to local law enforcement, training can be easily administered, and local intelligence officers can build trust in the practice.
Some years ago, King’s College London conducted research to develop a portable technique to develop fingermarks from ivory. IFAW have funded kits containing this development technology for distribution in several African countries.
The team at City of London Police discovered that these developed fingermarks were being filed away in desk drawers because there was no available technology to allow police to compare them against a database. This meant that there was no chance of proceeding towards prosecution.
To address this, the Forensic Service team are now offering a free Operational Response Database (ORD) to local wildlife crime units. This solution offers in-country units a secure walled section of the UK Home Office’s Ident 1 System. The data from each country is kept separate, but can be used by individual intelligence groups or by national law enforcement teams. The ORD has very sophisticated searching algorithms and has ample space to grow.
In May 2019, the Bureau ran crime scene training in Zimbabwe to set up collection and search tools for local forensic operations and raise awareness of results. The training is broken down into three simple packages: (1) Crime Scene Management, (2) Fingermark evidence collection, and (3) Intelligence and Evidence of identification to prosecution. Zimbabwe now has an established evidence collection programme.
This is a vital step to support law enforcement teams across Africa as they investigate over 55 wildlife crime scenes per day. To halt the Illegal Wildlife Trade, local units must understand how to identify and track those involved, put an evidential package together for prosecution, and help investigators build a better intelligence picture.
Support from WILDLABS Tech Hub partners
By teaming up with WILDLABS Tech Hub, the collaboration is helping City of London Police raise awareness of the solution and increase local access to forensic training. The partnership has helped Tracy create a new brand identity, Poreprint, along with logo design and marketing materials for communicating the initiative.
Through exposure to the WILDLABS, Tracy has connected with a Zimbabwe-based NGO which has funded all the work in Zimbabwe so far to train wildlife crime units and open up their access to the Operational Response Database. This work is ongoing, and as soon as the travel ban is lifted, the City of London Police will also be supporting Zimbabwean police officers in other areas such as ballistics training
Additionally, WILDLABS Tech Hub Partner Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has been helping the City of London Police by providing specimens for their research. This year’s research will focus on field techniques for the development of fingermarks on pangolin scales. London Zoo is facilitating the provision of this raw material to help progress this vital work.
Tracy Alexander, Director of Forensics, City of London Police
“Since we began the programme with the fantastic Minerals Flora and Fauna Unit, police in Zimbabwe have arrested and are in the process of prosecuting 18 individuals involved in wildlife crime. We could not be more pleased to see this clear evidence of how our collaboration with African nations can help in the frontline fight against wildlife crime.”
How can you get involved?
If you know of any wildlife crime units or investigators that would appreciate access to this technology, the team would welcome new connections. The team are also on the lookout for new funding to run local training programmes and empower new wildlife crime units with this essential access to forensic science.
Contact Tracy Alexander: [email protected]
To learn more about the WILDLABS Tech Hub accelerator programme, download our 2018-2019 Community Review.
How would you fight the illegal wildlife trade using technology? Come brainstorm with us in our Wildlife Crime forum.