Artificial intelligence in the fight against poaching

Poaching is a term commonly used to describe all kinds of activities related to illegal wildlife trade.

At the international level, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) signed in Washington on 3 March 1973 and entered into force on 1 July 1975 provides the legal framework for these practices[i].

This text, also known as the Washington Convention, begins by providing key definitions. We learn that the term « species » refers to « any species, subspecies, or one of their geographically isolated populations ».

Similarly, « specimen » includes « any animal or plant, living or dead (…), any part or product obtained from the animal, readily identifiable », and in the case of a plant « any part or product obtained from the plant, readily identifiable ».

The trade to which the title of the Convention refers is « export, re-export, import and introduction from the sea ».

It should be noted that illegal wildlife trade can be considered as any act of trade, as defined above, carried out without the possession or presentation of a specific permit (in cases where obtaining a permit is possible).

Currently, there are 183 parties to CITES, including the European Union[ii]. The latter incorporated the Convention by Regulation (EC) No 338/97 on the protection of species of wild fauna and flora by regulating trade therein, the details of which are set out in Regulation No 865/2006 adopted by the European Commission on 4 May 2006[iii].

In addition, an action plan was presented by the Commission on 3 March 2016. This plan against trafficking in wildlife[iv] replaces Commission Recommendation 2007/425/EC which sets out measures for the implementation of Regulation 338/97[v].

This report begins by noting the extent of poaching and its consequences. Thus, it explains that the increase in wildlife crime since the late 1990s is the cause of risks for the survival of some emblematic wildlife species, but also for the maintenance of biodiversity or even for the economy of some communities. Indeed, the latter hypothesis can be observed when a population for which tourism represents an important source of income sees this funding disappear due to the decline in the number of species considered attractive for tourism activity.

In addition, crime has increased dramatically in some parts of Africa due to extremely high revenues from poaching activities. The report notes that revenues from illegal wildlife trade can reach a staggering 20 billion euros each year. As a result, poaching is often associated with traditional forms of crime such as drug or firearms trafficking.

Finally, the action plan stresses that the European Union is directly affected by this phenomenon of illegal trade, mainly in that it acts as a hub for poachers between the African and Asian continents.

However, it must be noted that all the good will of international and European institutions does not make it possible to prevent the practice of illegal trade in wild species, so much this practice is rooted in certain zones, particularly in Africa. It is also important to highlight the strong correlation between poaching and poverty. As a result, the authorities of these populations often suffer from a cruel lack of technical and financial means to face the fourth most lucrative trafficking in the world, poaching, behind trafficking in arms, drugs and human beings[vi].

Despite these difficulties, we can observe that the evolution of new technologies and artificial intelligence can sometimes advance the fight against poaching. Perhaps the most striking recent example is the design of drones equipped with artificial intelligence[vii] that can quickly distinguish the different animal species targeted by hunters, but also the poachers themselves, and then alert the competent authorities in good time in order to abort a potential attack on animals.

These drones are the result of the initiative of the Lindbergh Foundation, an American organization specializing in the search for a coexistence between technology and the environment, the main idea being to succeed in putting technological innovations at the service of the protection and preservation of nature in order to achieve a balance between the human and natural spaces[viii].

The Lindbergh Foundation is not new to new technologies, since it already has a programme called « Air Spheperd » dedicated to the protection of natural species through the use of UAVs. According to the project’s website, all areas where these tools have been tested for poaching are now free of this scourge[ix].

What is new here is the integration of an artificial intelligence system into these instruments. To do so, the Foundation called on the services of Neurala, an American company specializing in this field and whose reputation is well established[x]. Massimiliano Versace, co-founder and CEO of this company, explained about this association that it is « an excellent example of the crucial way in which AI can be used for a good cause[xi] ».

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