Detecting Wildlife Crime in Real Time



How 3 winners of USAID’s Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge harness technology to improve enforcement.

Wildlife crime is a multifaceted threat. It not only endangers thousands of species, it also threatens global security and robs vulnerable populations of income and food sources. Driven by consumer demand and corruption, wildlife crime is enabled by complex, hard-to-monitor transit routes and weak on-site species detection at border crossings.

Such complex challenges require innovative solutions. In 2016, through the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, USAID and partners awarded prize funding and technical assistance to 16 innovators developing technology to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. More than five years later, see what they have achieved in this story map.

Three of the prize winners — the Zoological Society of London, the University of Technology Sydney, and the University of Leicester — created affordable, accessible, and scalable products that deliver real-time data to authorities who combat wildlife crime. Read on to learn more about these innovations.

Instant Detect 2.0 could aid wildlife patrols in monitoring remote, hard-to-reach areas, allowing them to target resources more efficiently. / Zoological Society of London

Catching Poachers in Real Time

Wildlife patrols often struggle to monitor vast and remote protected areas with limited technology and information on the activity of poachers. The Zoological Society of London, an international conservation organization, is developing a technology that combines motion-sensing cameras with military-grade sensors that can detect lightweight metal. The goal is to overcome a shortcoming of traditional motion detection systems, which cannot discern between animals passing by and poachers armed with weapons. The Instant Detect 2.0 could save wildlife patrols time and resources by quickly locating likely threats.

“Before, you had no idea what was triggering that alert, if it was 10 poachers or someone walking by with a machete,” said Sam Seccombe, technical project manager for the Zoological Society of London’s Monitoring and Technology Programme.

With this wireless, battery-operated, and camouflaged device, data collected through the cameras and motion-detecting sensors would automatically be transferred to secure cloud storage for sharing among authorities.

Since winning the Tech Challenge, the Zoological Society of London has worked to refine its product to make it accessible and affordable to those who need it most. Despite delays in field testing due to COVID-19, the product is scheduled to be deployed by the end of this year. In the future, the team hopes to add artificial intelligence for even faster image processing and greater accuracy in detecting specific species. They are currently assessing different business models to lower the price for consumers and encourage uptake of the product.

The University of Technology Sydney’s electronic ‘nose’ for rapid, on-site species identification can help law enforcement collect evidence to prosecute wildlife traffickers. / University of Technology Sydney

Identifying Illegal Wildlife Meat at Border Crossings

While the Zoological Society of London’s innovation aimed to help authorities catch poachers in protected areas, the University of Technology Sydney saw the need for detection at another juncture for wildlife crime: border crossings. With illegal wildlife often hidden in legal shipments, enforcement authorities, even those with sniffer dogs, struggle to rapidly distinguish legally-traded wildlife meat from illegal wildlife meat, highlighting a need for on-site species identification.

Thus, a team at the University of Technology Sydney developed a portable, electronic “nose” that customs officials can use to smell “fingerprints” of trafficked wildlife and wildlife parts. With four rounds of prototypes completed, the nose’s new sensor has shown high identification reliability in testing and the team is nearing commercialization.

The original schematic drawing for the University of Technology Sydney’s electronic ‘nose.’ / University of Technology Sydney


Once on the market, the portable “nose” will enable authorities to rapidly identify and confiscate illegal wildlife products, and quickly build evidence to prosecute offenders — without the need for laboratory analysis or the expertise required to operate similar equipment.

Through the Tech Challenge’s networking opportunities, the university developed a partnership with the Australia National Museum to use the technology in addressing the illegal reptile trade. The University of Technology Sydney team is developing a business plan and will seek additional support to scale-up the electronic nose.

“The Tech Challenge has led to a lot of really good collaborations with people that we might not necessarily have crossed paths with otherwise,” said Maiken Ueland, deputy director of the The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research and ARC DECRA fellow at the University of Technology Sydney.

The MinION DNA sequencer is so small and fast that it can analyze wildlife samples on the spot, within hours rather than days. / University of Leicester

Automating DNA-Based Species Identification

Another innovation that benefited from support through the Tech Challenge and could transform how authorities respond to wildlife crime is the MinION DNA sequencer. Recognizing that enforcement authorities are unable to run rapid, field-level DNA-based species identification to use as evidence of a crime, a team at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom built the sequencer to analyze wildlife samples on the spot and deliver results in one hour, avoiding expensive equipment and lengthy testing processes.

“We can pretty much identify any vertebrate species.” said Dr. Jon Wetton, co-director of the Alec Jeffreys Forensic Genomics Unit at the University of Leicester.

MinION can fully automate DNA sequencing and species identification at the crime scene, providing authorities with evidence that would allow them to detain and arrest traffickers on the spot.

The Leicester team is using their handheld technology in the lab to identify the origins of traded birds of prey and determine if they are legally captive-bred or illegally poached from the wild in the United Kingdom and destined for the Middle East. They are still testing accuracy of the field-based tool. In the meantime, the MinION also enabled the first DNA sequencing in space on the International Space Station.

A community ranger surveys the landscape from Kittenden Outpost, Kenya. / Matthew Erdman, USAID

Harnessing Technology to Empower People and Fight Wildlife Crime

These three Tech Challenge winners showcase the potential for technology to transform wildlife crime detection and enforcement. By delivering information to authorities on the spot, these innovations would allow authorities to address crimes in real-time and build an evidence base to prosecute offenders. However, they also illustrate the challenges of developing a technology that is accurate, affordable, and scalable.

As demonstrated through the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, USAID is committed to supporting innovative approaches to combat wildlife crime, including empowering people with technology that allows them to work more efficiently and effectively.

This is the third story in a series of three featuring winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, which was launched by USAID and its partners in 2014 and awarded prizes to winners in 2016 and 2017. To learn more about some of the winners and what they have achieved since, check out this story map, this story on a solar-powered wildlife surveillance technology, or this story on how whistleblowing can facilitate the prosecution of wildlife crimes.