Building partnerships to end Illegal Wildlife Trade

We all know the appalling statistics about the illegal wildlife trade:  a rhino killed by poachers every seven hours; African elephant populations declining by 8% a year; over a thousand park rangers killed in the line of duty over the last decade.  Beyond the media spotlight, there are many other gravely endangered species, such as the pangolin, the saiga, and the African grey parrot. Illegal timber logging and fishing are also threatening significant numbers of globally important trees and fish.

Recognising the severity of the issue, in 2014, the UK hosted the first ever global IWT conference in London, bringing together world leaders to agree to do more to stop the trade.  This year the UK hosted it again, and the conference took place last week on 11-12 October.

When we first started discussing our plans for the IWT Conference, I was personally keen that we included a programme of work on how technology can help solve some of the challenges of IWT.  I am excited by the potential of new technologies, which I know have the capacity to deliver sustainable solutions for IWT and at a scale that will have real impact on the ground.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office led the tech programme, starting off with a roundtable of some of the most important technology companies including Google, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft (represented by their partner Dimension Data), the Digital Catapult, the Satellite Applications Catapult and, of course, techUK.  We heard from United for Wildlife, represented by the Royal Foundation and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) about some of the challenges they faced in tackling IWT.  Everyone present recognised the severity of the challenge and agreed to work together support us.

We identified two areas where, by working together, it should be possible to deliver new solutions. 

The first was in data standards and data sharing.  This might sound a bit uninspiring but consider this: imagine you could point your smartphone at any plant, animal or fish and get an instant message telling you what species it was and whether or not it was endangered.  We cannot do this yet, but if we develop the right databases on the right platforms, and share our data, this sort of machine learning image recognition technology will be possible.  It will be a game-changer in species identification.

The second was to apply new approaches to protecting animals in the wild.  It’s now possible to see animals from space, or to use remote sensors to check they are healthy, behaving normally and that their environment is safe.  This sort of technology should mean that animals could be left alone to behave naturally – no fences, no tags under their skin, no humans – with alerts to rangers if it looks like they might need to intervene to protect the animals.

It is early days for both projects, but they are helping demonstrate that conservationists can apply the very latest technology to IWT challenges.

My officials worked hard to broker the new relationships that brought together tech companies that have cutting-edge solutions with conservation scientists who need help.  The tech companies were not aware they had solutions that could be of use in the fight against IWT; the conservationists did not know the full range of new technologies that could be applied to their particular problems.

In addition to these two projects, I am delighted to report that the Foreign Office has provided pump-priming funding to ZSL to continue this work, and that the two Catapults, Amazon Web Services and Google have offered significant support too, and other companies are exploring if they can help.  Last week we announced the culmination of these new relationships with the new “Wildlabs Tech Hub”.  This should ensure that the work we started this year continues to deliver benefits for years to come.

I am grateful to all the partners who have put their time and resources into developing this programme: United for Wildlife (in particular ZSL and the Royal Foundation), Google, Amazon Web Services, Digital Catapult and Satellite Applications Catapult.

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