Fight against wildlife crime goes hi-tech in Indonesia

Harry Pearl –

From cutting-edge DNA barcoding to smartphone apps, conservationists are turning to hi-tech tools in their battle against Indonesia’s animal traffickers.
Spread across more than 17,000 islands, the Southeast Asian nation’s dense tropical rainforests boast some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world.
Indonesia is also on the frontline of an illicit global trade estimated to be worth $23 billion a year .
To tackle the problem, conservationists have begun using a slew of new gadgets to protect the archipelago’s rare and threatened wildlife.
“Without a doubt (technology) is probably one of the largest resources that will help the good guys get the bad guys,” Matthew Pritchett, from anti-trafficking group Freeland Foundation, said.
For instance, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which works with Indonesian authorities to halt wildlife crime, uses similar computer software to map criminal networks and extract data from seized electronic devices. Conservation group International Animal Rescue Indonesia (IAR) is examining crime scene evidence with the help of DNA barcoding — 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 differentiate between species and sub-species — not all of which may be endangered.
“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,” Christine Rattel, IAR programme adviser, said.
Despite a raft of laws aimed at protecting Indonesia’s wildlife, forest rangers and police are under-resourced and lack specialised scientific knowledge, experts say.
Detection is often left to NGOs that scan wildlife markets and social media for threatened species, carry out investigations in the field and then notify police. “What a lot of people don’t realise is that law enforcement officers are not biologists,” Pritchett said.
“There might be some of them that specialise, but when it comes down to it we are talking about something like 25,000 to 30,000 species across the world that are protected from international trade.”
This is a gap that the Freeland Foundation wanted to plug when it developed its smartphone identification app WildScan.
Law enforcement officials and members of the public can swipe and click through questions and photos to determine whether they have a protected species in front of them.
If it turns out they do, they can then photograph and report it to authorities across Southeast Asia using the app. — AFP