A new app allows tourists in Southeast Asia to help track and capture one of the region’s most notorious predators: animal poachers. Wildlife Witness, developed by Australia’s Taronga Zoo and TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, lets anyone who sees people engaged in suspicious hunting, trapping, or sales activities take a picture and pin it to a virtual map, which gets forwarded to various wildlife authorities.
It’s being promoted by San Diego Zoo Global, which includes famed zoo’s conservation and biodiversity programs, through a campaign called, "Lend Your Eyes to the Wild." In short, animal protectors around the world could use reinforcements. And they think folks visiting U.S. zoos might be the perfect place to recruit. "It’s an app for people to have an action component to conservation right in their back pocket," says Suzanne Hall, a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. "We want to make everyone aware that this is out there so that when you travel you can participate in trying to put an end to wildlife crime."
Wildlife trafficking, an estimated $19 billion trade, is the fourth largest black market behind drugs, weapons, and human trafficking. At the current rate of illegal harvest, elephants, tigers, rhinos, and some species of turtles could disappear from the wild within just a few decades. Many are being captured or killed as trophies, or for their meat or whatever products can be made from their tusks, horns, or bile.
Since its release in May, Wildlife Witness has been downloaded over 10,000 times, leading to more than a thousand reports of suspicious activity that officials are now using as a roadmap to establish trading hotspots, bust crime rings, and make seizures. Officials have taken action against at least 500 people.
Playing amateur detective is pretty easy. All those who see something suspicious have to do is click the "Make a Report" tab, which leads to a drop down menu to capture the particulars like whether they’re looking at a store product, restaurant offering, or crime in action. The app has one-click geo-tagging, and a few more boxes for users to add details about the species seen or product features, it’s quantity or whatever else might help investigators when they arrive on scene.
For those who need guidance as to what to look for, there's a "Wildlife to Watch" tab that shows commonly targeted animals and explains why and to what extent they’re being hurt. The "Issues Map" tab lets users see if others in their area are reporting crimes so they can be especially watchful.
The problem may sound a world away, but demand is often driven by off-radar communities operating within the U.S., Hall says. And Americans certainly make up a large share of tourists abroad. It’s important to educate both about either the result of their actions or how they should be helping. Both groups probably like the zoo for different reasons, but it’s the one place that message can be received.
The San Diego Zoo often cares for exotic plants or animals confiscated at nearby international airports or the Mexico border. They’ve also formed the Wildlife Tracking Task Force with U.S Fish and Wildlife Officials to help stop poaching practices at home. Eventually, Hall hopes the app’s success overseas will lead to a similar release at home.
Data being reported could help authorities spot trends they haven’t seen before. After Wildlife Witness was released, authorities began receiving reports of robust earless monitor lizard trading. The prehistoric-looking creature is nationally protected in its home zone of Malaysia, meaning it shouldn’t be winding up in collectors’ terrariums. "That is a species that the app helped highlight that was not really on anyone’s radar as far as being involved in illegal trade," Hall says.
Correction: The name of the campaign is Lend Your Eyes to the Wild, not Lend Your Ears to the Wild, but whatever senses you can give would be helpful.
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[Photo: Flickr user Damian Moore]