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How money and technology are weaponizing the fight against the illegal wildlife trade

How money and technology are weaponizing the fight against the illegal wildlife trade

Rangers in Kruger Park, South Africa. Credit: WildSnap/Shutterstock

Thousands of animals and plants are bought and sold every year around the world in the form of food, medicine, clothing and furniture, even in the form of musical instruments. Wildlife, it seems, is big business.

The illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated to be worth at least US$7bn (£5.9bn) and potentially as much as US$23bn, is behind some of the species the best known on Earth, especially rhinos, elephants, tigers, lions. and, more recently, pangolins – on the verge of extinction.

Since 2008, law enforcement has taken on a significantly larger role in combating the illegal wildlife trade, thanks to support from governments, private donors, conservation charities and corporations. The result is that counterinsurgency techniques, such as developing informant networks and contracting private security companies to train rangers in anti-poaching operations with military-grade weapons, have proliferated. .

Meanwhile, many conservationists are turning to drones and other technologies to monitor species and enforce protective measures. This in turn creates new business for tech companies keen to build a green reputation.

Countries must find a way to combat the illegal wildlife trade. But, as a researcher of international conservation policy, I believe that the techniques and technologies more regularly deployed by law enforcement and security companies are not the answer.

The funding problem

Between 2002 and 2018, the US Fish and Wildlife Service gave US$301 million to 4,142 conservation projects in 106 countries. Over these 16 years, an increasing share has been allocated to combating the illegal wildlife trade, through a change in strict species protection and projects aimed at improving livelihoods.

In 2014, the US Congress allocated $45 million in its foreign biodiversity aid budget to combat wildlife trafficking, rising to $55 million in 2015, $80 million in 2016, and nearly $91m in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The government’s fund to combat the illegal wildlife trade allocated over £23m to 75 projects between 2013 and 2019.

The fund had three themes: developing sustainable livelihoods that could replace poaching (six projects funded), strengthening law enforcement and the role of the criminal justice system (62 projects funded), and reducing demand for wildlife (seven projects funded).

The role of philanthropists in funding conservation is growing. Examples include Howard Graham Buffet’s US$23 million donation in 2014 to help Kruger National Park in South Africa combat rhino poaching. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos established his $10 billion Earth Fund in 2021 to give grants to conservation initiatives, among other environmental causes.

This money can help conservationists respond quickly to emergencies. Philanthropists tend to come from a corporate culture in which it’s normal to set goals and expect quick, clear, and traceable results in return for donations, which can be beneficial for planning effective action.

But some conservationists I interviewed while researching my book, Security and Conservation, said it can lead to unwanted pressure on people doing conservation work, like rangers. They spoke of expectations to increase the number of seizures of trafficked goods, secure more arrests, and generally pursue more aggressive anti-poaching efforts to achieve quick results.

Technology and security

Conservation groups and tech companies have touted a range of technologies as cost-effective ways to crack down on wildlife trafficking. These often involve forms of surveillance borrowed from the security industry, from drones and satellite surveillance of wildlife to artificial intelligence augmenting the ability of camera traps to identify potential poachers. Applications allowing the general public to report suspected illegal activities have even been developed.

Google’s Global Impact Awards had a $23 million fund to help “nonprofit technology innovators” (as Google called them) develop technology solutions for a range of global challenges, including the conservation. In 2012, it awarded more than $5 million to the Wildlife Crime Technology Project, which pioneered aerial poaching detection in Kenya and DNA sequencing to determine the origin of wildlife. illegal wildlife products.

These techniques are not necessarily problematic. But the lure of technology can overshadow the vital work of tackling the underlying drivers of poaching and trafficking, such as poverty and inequality.

Although the trade is by definition illegal, treating it as a purely criminal matter ignores the fact that people are drawn into poaching for various reasons. The colonial-era dispossession of people from places now designated as national parks left a lasting legacy. The lack of economic alternatives in these places makes poaching one of the few viable sources of income.

Global inequalities are also an important factor. Wildlife is often (but not exclusively) harvested from poorer areas to meet the demand of wealthier communities, with rosewood trafficked from Madagascar to China and illegal caviar from from the Caspian Sea serving the luxury markets of London and Paris, among others.

Financial support from governments and philanthropic foundations has been an important factor in conservation, particularly over the past 20 years. But faith in finding technological solutions to a problem treated as a security issue makes it more difficult to develop and support alternatives that might be more effective, including sustainable livelihoods for potential poachers and reduction of demand in richer countries.

Using 3D X-ray technology for the detection of illegal wildlife trafficking

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