Technology used in fighting wildlife crime in Indonesia
Spread across more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the two most important mega-diversity countries in the world. Its dense tropical rainforests boast some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, from scaly pangolins to the endangered orangutan.
However, that enormous array of flora and fauna means Indonesia is also on the frontline of an illicit global trade estimated to be worth as much as US$23 billion a year -- a shadowy operation bringing some species to the brink of extinction.
Despite laws to protect Indonesia's wildlife, forest rangers and police are under-resourced and lack specialised scientific knowledge. Detection is often left to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that scan wildlife markets and social media for threatened species, carry out investigations in the field and then notify police.
According to a recent report by Agence France Presse (AFP), conservationists are using hi-tech tools in their battle against Indonesia’s animal traffickers. These hi-tech tools range from cutting-edge DNA barcoding to smartphone apps that can identify illegal wildlife sales.
"Without a doubt, technology is probably one of the largest resources that will help the good guys get the bad guys," said Matthew Pritchett from Freeland Foundation, an international anti-trafficking NGO.
"The criminals that are behind the illegal wildlife trade are large organised syndicates that are extremely sophisticated,” he added.
To keep pace with these vast trafficking groups, conservationists are now deploying the kind of technology once reserved for combating drug cartels and crime lords.
For instance, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) which works with Indonesian authorities to combat wildlife crime uses computer software to map criminal networks and extract data from seized electronic devices.
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) is using drones to keep track of orangutans and illegal forest clearing that threatens their habitat, while another conservation group International Animal Rescue Indonesia (IAR) is examining crime scene evidence with the help of DNA barcoding.
"If we have animals with a known origin and we have animals that appear, for example, in Jakarta, we can then compare the genetic samples. We can then track down the hunting hotspots and what the trading routes are," said Christine Rattel, Programme Advisor at IAR.
DNA barcoding is a taxonomic method that relies on short genetic sequences to identify species. Tissue samples from confiscated animals can be cross-referenced with a database of stored genetic codes, helping to unambiguously differentiate between species and sub-species.
The organisation is building a barcode database for different species of slow loris which are being hunted to extinction for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
As most law enforcement officers are not experts in wildlife diversity, Freeland Foundation developed a smartphone identification app WildScan to assist officers in their work as well as educate the public.
According to Freeland Foundation's website, WildScan is a comprehensive species identification and response mobile application designed to combat wildlife trafficking. The application is designed to help frontline wildlife law enforcement agencies correctly identify, report and handle marine, freshwater and terrestrial animals caught in the illegal wildlife trade.
Users of the WildScan app can swipe and click through questions and photos to determine whether they have a protected species in front of them. If it turns out that the animal is protected, they can then photograph and report it to authorities across Southeast Asia using the app.
Mr Pritchett said reports generated through the app have already resulted in authorities taking action in Indonesia and Thailand. The WildScan app has now built a database of some 700 species and 2,000 photos.
However, outdated laws, scarce enforcement resources and low prosecution rates remain key challenges in halting the trade, according to a 2015 report by development agency United States Agency for International Development (USAID).