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
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.
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.
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).