Animal rights NGOs in Indonesia are using high technology to combat trafficking that has decimated some species in the country. The NGOs use smartphone applications capable of mapping the routes of traffickers of species protected by DNA-based barcodes.
The fauna and flora in the tropical forests of the Southeast Asian archipelago, whose biodiversity is one of the richest in the world, are threatened by the lucrative trade of animals such as orangutans and pangolins. Illegal trade of endangered species is estimated at around $ 23 billion worldwide.
To combat this scourge, conservationists have started using a variety of new tools to try to protect rare and endangered species in Indonesia.
Technology is “probably one of the most important resources to help the good guys catch the bad guys,” says Matthew Pritchett, a member of the NGO Freeland Foundation, which fights against animal smuggling. “Offenders who are behind the illegal wildlife trade are very sophisticated and well-organized criminal organizations,” he says.
In the face of such networks, animal rights advocates are deploying technologies once reserved for combating drug cartels and organized crime.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) uses computer software to establish traffickers’ routes and extract data from electronic devices seized from suspects, says Dwi Adhiasto, WCS Program Manager for Indonesia.
For its part, the Indonesian Animal Rescue Center (IAR) is examining evidence using DNA-based barcodes to identify species.
The IAR has created a database for the slow loris, a primate hunted for the venom it produces to defend itself, a substance prized in traditional Chinese medicine. “If we have animals whose origin is known and animals found for example in Jakarta, we can compare genetic samples,” said Christine Rattel, advisor to the IAR program. “We can then trace the hunting areas and determine the routes used for the illegal trade,” she says.
But despite a series of laws for the protection of wildlife in Indonesia, the number of rangers and the police officers working to prevent poaching remain inadequate. In addition, they lack the means and scientific knowledge, observe the experts.
“What many people do not realize is that law enforcement people are not scientists, some of them may be specialized, but 25,000 to 30,000 species are involved across the boardthe world that are protected from international trade,” says Pritchette in reference to the difficulty of the task.
The information generated by the NGO’s application — which contains some 700 species and 2,000 photos — has already allowed authorities in Indonesia and Thailand to investigate trafficking networks. But despite the efforts of conservationists and the help of high technology, the battle can be lost, experts say.
Inadequate laws, lack of staff to implement legislation, and infrequent prosecutions remain the main challenges, according to a 2015 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
In addition, there is a lack of political will in Indonesia to tackle the black market for protected species, says Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Program, who uses drones to track monkeys and detect illegal logging of trees that threatens animal habitat.
“Without the will of the government, nothing will ever change, regardless of the level of technology,” he says.