Activating big data and machine learning to support vulnerable species

Ranked as the fourth most lucrative transnational crime after drugs, weapons, and human trafficking, with annual revenues estimated to be up to £17 billion, the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) is the largest direct threat to the future of many of the world’s most threatened species. 

ZSL (Zoological Society of London), United for Wildlife, Digital Catapult, WILDLABS and the UK Government are bringing together conservationists and the world’s best machine learning experts to share expertise and consider algorithms that can help detect and protect illegally trafficked species in the field and stop illegal trafficking through border points. 

Law enforcement and other agencies can deter and stop such illicit activities through the use of novel technologies. Technology companies of all sizes, global conservation bodies, FCO, Catapults and the wider IWT community are collaborating to accelerate the use of artificial intelligence and big data to tackle this threat. 

A group of people stood together at ZSL London Zoo

The incubator event led and hosted by ZSL this week saw representatives from leading technology companies, government, academia and NGOs pledge to donate their infrastructure, share their data and collectively support law enforcement authorities and the conservation community through the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

The initiative is just one in a series of technology incubator workshops that are being held by technology companies, NGOs and governments to overcome some of the major barriers previously highlighted by stakeholders involved in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade. Five common challenges were identified as paramount at a government roundtable: education and training to build capacity around tools; sustained access to digital infrastructure, platforms and equipment; shared data and databases; affordability; and advancing appropriate innovation.

The workshop attendees agreed on a collective mission to join efforts in creating and sharing algorithms and machine learning tools that can plug into a broad range of applications designed to combat IWT along the chain of supply and demand. Through the creation of clear roadmaps to wide scale implementation and sustainability, the event has bolstered an expert-driven coalition to put into practice what wildlife so desperately needs.

Group of people with laptop around a table

To advance this work, WILDLABS will be hosting a Tech Hub that will be supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Catapults, global conservation bodies and technology companies. The WILDLABS Tech Hub is set up as a scalable accelerator framework that will empower a coalition of partners, experts and developers to help develop and implement IWT conservation platforms, enabling the sharing of data and AI solutions to support law enforcement and overcome IWT challenges. The government is providing a small amount of funding to prime the initiative and the tech hub and through the conference is looking for further corporate and philanthropic supporters to advance this work.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Mark Field said: “Wildlife crime is a blight on the global community. It threatens livelihoods, exacerbates the extinction of precious species and fuels violent and organised crime. I am heartened to see the very best brains from across civil society, science, conservation and business come together to utilise the latest technology to tackle poaching, which is vital to ensure future generations will not live in a world without wildlife.”

Sophie Maxwell, Conservation Technology Lead at ZSL said: “The event identified a clear passion and will from the technology sector to engage in the big issues facing wildlife. Events like this and initiatives like WILDLABS help conservationists apply the expertise offered by technology companies with real world illegal wildlife trade issues. Only through a collaborative effort will we accelerate the creation and sharing of machine learning tools to detect trafficked species at key points along the IWT chain. This event will help fast-track the democratisation of machine learning tools for all those working to stop IWT.”

Camera tapping tool penguins

Zac Goldsmith, MP and a Champion for the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London, stated that “just as the criminals who fuel the illegal wildlife trade are turning to technology to boost their profits, we need to beat them at their own game by finding creative solutions using the latest tech to find and prosecute them. We will only do this by working together to find the best way forward and WILDLABS will unite businesses, conservationists and tech companies to find the new, innovative ideas we need to save endangered species before it is too late.”

To find out more on how Conservation bodies are coming together to use technology to combat the illegal wildlife trade go to WILDLABS. WILDLABS is an online community dedicated to sharing knowledge on the use of technology for conservation. In 2015 Google and Arm provided seed funding to create WILDLABS, which is co-owned and managed by Conservation International, Flora & Fauna International, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF and the Zoological Society of London.

Find out more about ZSL's involvement in the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference