Tech to the Rescue?

New technologies are helping investigators track down wildlife traffickers and poachers, but they also raise some troubling ethical concerns.

THE OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST sprawls across more than 630,000 acres in northwest Washington State, with waterfalls, wilderness areas, wildlife, and uncounted millions of trees. The US Forest Service touts the place’s “unique opportunity to hike a mountain for great 360-degree views, explore the only temperate rainforest in the Lower 48, and camp right along one of the many pristine bodies of water.” Yewah Lau, former deputy supervisor of the Olympic National Forest, says “It’s very lush, lush greenery. You see moss, you see lichens on some of the trees.” Unfortunately, this lush greenery is marred, in places, by bald spots, courtesy of timber poaching.

The term “timber poacher” has a deceptively quaint flavor, like buccaneer or highwayman or cattle rustler, but in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, tree theft has become a growing, modern-day problem. According to the US Forest Service, some 1,000 significant hardwood theft cases are reported from national forests across the country every year, costing the agency up to $100 million on average.

In the Olympic National Forest, timber poachers often target bigleaf maple, a hardwood species highly valued for crafting musical instruments, including guitars. In 2018, a band of poachers who had been illegally logging there for months sprayed insecticide and poured gasoline on a wasp nest near the base of a prime maple in the forest’s Elk Lake area, set it afire, and fled when they were unable to put the flames out. The fire grew into a massive blaze that ravaged more than 3,300 acres of public land, spewed huge amounts of smoke into the air, and cost $4.5 million to contain. US Forest Service law enforcement officer David Jacus recalls how the Maple Fire, as it was dubbed, grew, and torched trees as it worked up a ridge.

Almost four years later, one can still find visible evidence of the crime, he says. “If you drive up Forest Service Road 2441 toward Elk Lake, you can stop at an overview of the drainage and can clearly see fire scars all the way to the top of the ridge.”

Prior to the fire, the poachers used a bogus permit, which falsely claimed the maples had been harvested legally on private land, to sell 225 blocks of the wood from at least 10 trees to a nearby mill for a pittance: $14,690.

Yet those same criminals unwittingly opened the door for a forensic game changer — the ringleader’s trial was the first where federal prosecutors used tree DNA as incriminating evidence. The wood the gang had sold to the mill genetically matched DNA from stumps of three poached maples that investigators found in the Elk Lake area. The DNA analysis “was so precise that it found the probability of a match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion (one followed by 36 zeroes),” US Department of Justice prosecutors said in a statement. Last July, ringleader Justin Andrew Wilke was convicted by a jury and later sentenced to prison for trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, among other crimes, though he was not convicted on fire-related charges. One co-conspirator pleaded guilty and received a prison term, while a third member of the gang received immunity in exchange for testifying.

In the Olympic National Forest, timber poachers often target big leaf maple, a hardwood species highly valued for crafting musical instruments like guitars. Photo by The Tronodon.

In 2018, a band of poachers who had been illegally logging in the national forest poured gasoline on a wasp nest near the base of a prime maple, set it afire, and fled when they were unable to put the flames out. The fire grew into a massive blaze that ravaged more than 3,300 acres of public land. Photo by US Forest Service-Pacific Northwest.

That landmark scientific work, led by Oregon-based Forest Service research geneticist Richard Cronn, is now expanding to create databases that will enable investigators to detect, prosecute, and punish poachers of other valuable tree species, such as coast redwood, black walnut, western red cedar, and Alaska yellow cedar.

“Forest trees are complicated. Any of these species are as diverse as humans,” says Cronn, who figured out a way to analyze tree DNA by working with US Fish and Wildlife forensic scientists familiar with DNA use in illegal animal trafficking and poaching cases. “The establishment of this methodology is an art,” he says.

THE USE OF TREE DNA IN CRIME sleuthing reflects the development and application of breakthrough technologies in a worldwide battle to save endangered and threatened species, from the iconic elephant, tiger, pangolin, and rhino to little-known lizards, birds, fish, insects, and orchids.

The advances come at a time when lucrative criminal trafficking worth billions of dollars a year is imperiling many species already severely threatened by climate change and habitat-destructive development. But even as the wildlife trade poses a major threat to biodiversity, holding poachers to account isn’t easy. Among the challenges investigators and prosecutors face in poaching cases is identifying where a plant or animal sample comes from. That can create a significant dilemma if a species is protected in one location but not another, or when animals are captured in the wild and falsely marketed as captive bred. Technologies like microscopy, DNA profiling, and isotope analysis offer investigators just the tools they need to fill in these information gaps.

DNA offers “a lot of promise in traceability,” says Colby Loucks, vice president of the wildlife conservation program at WWF. With the illegal supply chain for plants, Loucks says it will be important to determining, for example, where IKEA plywood is coming from.

Volunteers with Adventure Scientists’ Timber Tracking project photograph tree samples in Oregon. The data they collect will be sent to the US Forest Service, where researchers are creating genetic and chemical reference libraries for species commonly targeted by poachers. Photo by Kyle Moon / Adventure Scientists.

Many of the technological innovations that are helping investigators track poached flora and fauna take place in the lab, some are dreamed up in the field, and some in front of a computer screen. Some experiments succeed. Others fail to meet hopes and expectations.

Criminology and computer science researchers in the United Kingdom, for instance, have done a proof-of-concept study on the use of artificial intelligence to analyze online marketplaces for illegal trafficking in endangered plants. They created the FloraGuard project to explore openly accessible forum and auction websites to identify patterns of plant crimes. The team focused on species collected illegally in India, Pakistan, Mexico, Texas, Madagascar, and South Africa.

“It’s like an extra hand that can make life for law enforcement easier in investigations.”

Endangered plants are widely sought for traditional medicine and the horticulture trade, but cracking down on plant traffickers ranks as a lower law enforcement priority than going after those who sell wildlife parts, such as elephant ivory, shark fins, and rhino horns. “Resources tend to be allocated elsewhere,” says Anita Lavorgna, a criminologist at the University of Southampton in England and a researcher on the FloraGuard project. “It’s important to find new ways to be more effective, more efficient, in monitoring these.” The next step in the project is working with partners such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to produce a computer tool for easy, practical use in searching huge amounts of data. “It’s not a magic bullet. It can’t pick up everything. There are false positives and negatives,” she says. “It’s like an extra hand that can make life for law enforcement easier in investigations.”

In another daring venture that relied heavily on technology, in 2014, a National Geographic special investigation into the relentless poaching of African elephants arranged for an American Museum of Natural History taxidermist to design a first-of-its-kind fake tusk made from resin and coated with a protective veneer that felt and looked like the real thing. Embedded inside was a custom-made tracking system with a battery good for more than a year, an Iridium satellite transceiver, a temperature sensor, and a customized GPS receiver. The aim was to get two of these artificial tusks mixed in with real tusks and track them as they made their way along smuggling routes in Central Africa and, thus, identify the key smugglers who ply those routes. Bryan Christy, founder and former head of Special Investigations at National Geographic, wrote in a 2015 article, “I will use (the) tusks to hunt the people who kill elephants and to learn what roads their ivory plunder follows, which ports it leaves, what ships it travels on, what cities and countries it transits, and where it ends up.” Once he managed to get the tusks into the illicit trade network, Christy used the tracking system and Google Earth to monitor the progress of the pseudo-ivory from Garamba National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo into nearby South Sudan, then into Sudan and inside what was thought to be the hideout of one of the most notorious African warlords, Joseph Kony. “Subsequently, I was told by people on the ground in Garamba that this led them to uncover a new illicit trade route through that town,” Christy told the Journal.

ANOTHER GAP IN the capacity of environmental and police agencies to detect eco-crimes is the time and expense required to quickly and accurately identify and then intercept wildlife and animal parts at points of detection, such as ports and border crossings. Electronic “noses” can cover the base here. A prototype electronic nose is already being deployed in Australia to detect the scent of a native Australian lizard, the shingleback, amid worries about how a growing demand in overseas markets has ramped up illegal trafficking of the protected species. Authorities have found shinglebacks stuffed in socks and Pringles containers for shipment.

“Current methods used for detecting reptiles in transit are limited to visual examination by security personnel, often without specific training to identify wildlife, olfactory detection by wildlife detection dogs — which is not routinely used for wildlife [by border and customs officials] — and inspection through X-ray machines,” says Maiken Ueland of the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Forensic Science. “There is, therefore, a need to develop a rapid detection method to detect the presence of illegally trafficked reptiles in transit.”

After all, the scientific reasoning went, if dogs can be trained to detect a variety of wildlife species, why couldn’t electronic nose devices recognize target gases? Ueland’s team is developing portable technology for use as a screening tool in airports, post offices, and other venues where wildlife is trafficked. The new technology, she notes, is also used to locate victims of mass disasters.

Other scientists have been doing similar explorations into chemical odor profiling to differentiate rhinoceros horns by species, geographic origin, and differences in diet. Still more are working at developing devices that can pick up acoustic clues.

The UK-based company Open Acoustic Devices, cofounded by computer scientist Andy Hill, designed AudioMoth, a low-cost, full-spectrum acoustic logger intended primarily for conservationists, researchers, and citizen scientists to capture human disturbance sounds such as gunshots, ultrasonic bat calls, and audible wildlife sounds such as cicadas. The device is being tested in Belize to detect gunshots from poachers, most often subsistence hunters. Its principal limitation in wildlife enforcement purposes is that, although it can store audio files, it cannot transmit them as events happen — yet. “For it to be actually useful, what’s needed is a way to send real-time alerts. It’s something we want to do, but the communications technology is not quite ready yet,” Hill says.

SUPPORT FOR TECHNOLOGY-BASED projects comes from a wide variety of sources, including big names inside and outside the conservation world. For example, in addition to the artificial elephant tusk project in Africa, the National Geographic Society helped fund development of a chip that could be placed in artificial sea turtle eggs to track poaching, according to Rachael Bale, National Geographic magazine’s executive editor of the animals desk. Another society-funded project puts solar panels, antennae, and recycled cell phones in trees to pick up sounds of illegal logging in Borneo and poaching in Bolivia, Bale says.

Last year, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, the royal patron of the anti-poaching group Tusk, visited Microsoft’s UK headquarters to discuss the company’s Project SEEKER, which uses artificial intelligence models — basically an algorithm that has been taught to recognize different animals and their body parts — that can work with cargo and luggage scanners to detect trafficked wildlife at ports, border crossings, and airports. According to the company, a trial run at Heathrow Airport checked up to 250,000 bags a day, earned a 70-plus percent successful detection rate, and was particularly effective in identifying ivory products.

Customs officials in Thailand discover a shipment of African elephant tusks from Mozambique. Photo by WWF / James Morgan.

A veterinary team from a wildlife forensic unit takes blood samples from one of 16 tiger cubs seized as smugglers attempted to move them across the border from Thailand into Laos. Photo by WWF / James Morgan.

Meanwhile, more than four dozen social media, e-commerce, and tech companies are supporting the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, WWF, and International Fund for Animal Welfare set up. The coalition claims to have removed or blocked more than 11.6 million posts related to illegal wildlife between 2018 and 2021. Its partners include TikTok, Microsoft, Google, eBay, Etsy, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as other companies in China, Europe, and elsewhere.

Not all poaching occurs on land, however, and as marine biologist Marla Valentine observes: “It’s impossible for us to have enough boats or planes on the water.” Valentine is the illegal fishing and transparency campaign manager at Oceana, an international ocean conservation group.

As with other areas of scientific inquiry, not every attempt at innovation goes smoothly.

Valentine mentions one earlier innovation that has been helpful here — small transmitters; these were placed on fishing vessels for greater visibility and to help locate the vessels for rescue efforts in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Now, new versions of those devices — which can track things like a ship’s flag registration, GPS location, the direction a ship is headed, and changes in speed — are being used to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Some of these devices also calculate the type of fishing, such as trawling, longlines, and squid jiggers, and an algorithm then can determine the species being caught. For example, “if it’s trawling off the coast of Chile, it’s pretty sure [to be] fishing for hake,” Valentine says. Peru now uses automatic notifications from such devices to monitor ships’ movements and fishing activities for the previous 30 days to help law enforcement officials decide whether to spend additional time on an inspection, she says. Meanwhile, Chile uses them for automatic notifications anytime a vessel comes within a certain distance of a protected area.

Such systems aren’t foolproof, though, because devices can be disabled, letting a vessel “effectively disappear from sight,” she says. However, the “wildly successful” Karagatan Patrol program in the Philippines uses Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, sensors to get past the deception of disabled devices and to identify a vessel’s location from a few lights left on at night. It can then send an inspection vessel to the precise spot, Valentine says.

As with other areas of scientific inquiry, not every attempt at innovation goes smoothly. To illustrate, a New Zealand-Canada team proposed developing and deploying “a constellation of buoys” to deter and detect illegal fishing in marine protected areas. One type would broadcast on marine VHF radio to warn fishers that an area is protected and that they could find their boats confiscated and themselves in jail, according to a funding proposal to Conservation X, a self-described “technology and innovation company that creates solutions to stop the extinction crisis.” The second type would use passive hydrophones to detect the sounds of fishing boat engines and gear, and it would provide “actionable alerts” to local law enforcement agencies. “We believe all the technology is within our grasp,” the team told Conservation X in its grant proposal. But lead investigator Graham Harris now says the project is “on hiatus” and has been “bottlenecked on getting recordings of vessels at sea annotated with whether they are fishing or not. This stuff is closely held by navies. Gathering it ourselves is doable but slow and expensive, and we do not have the funds to do it.”

Sometimes it takes more than money to transform ideas into reality. There are logistical challenges as well. Talking about new types of scanning equipment at airports and ports, Crawford Allan, the senior director of TRAFFIC, notes that some authorities “are quite keen” to use them — but only if it doesn’t disrupt or delay “the fine tempo” of their work, especially security.

When I asked WWF’s Loucks what new technology he dreams of, he answered that it’s a cheap detector able to find and identify snares that indiscriminately kill massive numbers of animals annually. “Being snared is not a great way to die,” he says. “Anything that walks in can be killed.” Electrified snares, he adds, have killed rangers and other people. The devices he envisions could be like metal detectors that treasure hunters and hobbyists use on beaches and could “save millions of wildlife lives every year.”

I asked Oceana’s Valentine the same question. She says she dreams of a better, tamper-proof automatic identification system (AIS), but acknowledges that technology alone is insufficient to curb and punish traffickers. “We need regulations,” such as making AIS mandatory for all shipping vessels, “to catch up with technology. We need the rules to match what we have available.”

THERE IS, HOWEVER, a little-explored potential dark side to using technology to fight the dark trade in wildlife: intrusion by conservation surveillance into personal privacy. Those worries include the misuse of online data — what information is collected, who gets access to it, how long it’s kept, what other uses are made of the data — and the inadvertent capture of photos and videos of people who are doing nothing illegal.

“A lot of the trade-off (between privacy and mission) and lines that law enforcement confront will manifest themselves here,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project in Washington. “On the one hand, if a posting is public, there is not much expectation of privacy,” and it’s legitimate to look at Craigslist and eBay, he says. “At the same time, algorithmic mass monitoring is a concern for us. Nobody wants to turn our national parks into Orwellian monitoring zones. If a camera set up to catch poaching incidentally catches somebody using illegal drugs or having sex in the wilderness, what’s going to happen to that video?”

Locals participate in a forest comanagement program in Bangladesh. Technology meant to track poachers and safeguard wildlife will also observe people going about their daily lives, raising privacy concerns. Photo by Sirajul Hossain / USAID.

Douglas Clark, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, cites similar concerns. “An awful lot of data are collected that people don’t have a good plan what to do with,” says Clark, a former Canadian national parks warden. “The capability for individual identification is going up all the time.” Clark’s team of British, Finnish, and Canadian researchers, which advocates for principles of socially responsible use of conservation monitoring technology and data, says that automated monitoring technologies include sensing devices, facial recognition software, and drones that can collect and analyze personal data, even if their operators’ intent is to observe “nonhuman animals or landscapes.”

“So far, literature on the ethical dimensions of these technologies in conservation has understandably focused on minimizing impacts to wildlife themselves, but has generally paid insufficient attention to potential impacts on people,” the team wrote in a 2021 report in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. In other words, people who are unintentionally observed become what the team labels “bycatch”— much as fishing nets incidentally capture nontarget species, including other types of fish, seabirds, turtles.

There’s also an environmental justice concern in that many of those caught by new technologies are at the bottom of the poaching and trafficking supply chain — subsistence hunters, for example, and the lowest-level gatherers of marketable flora and fauna. As Hill, of Open Acoustic Devices, puts it, “They’re not bad people, just feeding their families.”

Given that the use of technology, especially surveillance technologies, will inevitably become more prevalent in conservation work, and given that these technologies will inevitably grow more and more sophisticated (and intrusive), Clark and his team recommend developing principles for their responsible use. “Responsible data handling practices are essential for protecting privacy and fostering trust with local communities,” they write. To that effect, they recommend adopting standards that include “assessments of societal impacts, strong engagement with local conservation partners and stakeholders, and ongoing review of and improvement to these best-practice principles as technologies and conservation challenges change.”

Back in the Pacific Northwest, Richard Cronn, the Forest Service geneticist, sounds optimistic about the potential benefits of his continuing tree DNA research, which he says doesn’t raise the same privacy concerns as some of the other emerging technologies. “This type of work could literally be done for every tree. It wouldn’t be used for investigating small things, like firewood theft, but for other very high-value wood or human crimes. It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody has a pine needle in a criminal case to identify a tree at the scene of a crime,” he says. “That can be done.”

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