By Charlotte Davies
From tracking the illegal trading of ozone-depleting substances, to helping law enforcement agencies stop the trade of endangered big cats in Asia, data analytics increasingly is being used to fight environmental crime. Much like organized crime, environmental crime can be localized or global. Left unchecked, it can threaten biodiversity and species’ survival on a global level.
Part of my mission as a crime analyst is to assist the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in protecting the last of Asia’s endangered big cats — including the tiger, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard — which currently face various threats including habitat degradation, prey decline and poaching for their skin and bones. Using data analytics, my ability to track the illegal trade is now easier.
The worldwide population of tigers stands at around 3,500. The urgent need to save them has garnered the attention of key national and intergovernmental organizations. Despite global attention to this issue, these tigers continue to be threatened by the transnational, illegal trade in their skins, bones and other body parts.
For many years, the EIA, with its partner Wildlife Protection Society of India, has conducted covert field investigations into the illegal Asian big cat trade and encountered first-hand the traffickers and dealers involved. From the data perspective, these investigations generate a wealth of information. Historically, this data was stored in various formats — nominal information on profile sheets with telephone numbers and photographic records attached. EIA also kept tabs on enforcement events such as seizures and arrests, collating this historical information within a database.
Over time, the number of investigations increased and the amount of unstructured data grew. It became increasingly difficult to unbundle the vast amount of records. In a trade characterised by repeat offenders, favoured trafficking routes and persistent trading hubs, EIA sought a smarter way to organize the information — a method to interrogate and explore the inter-connectedness of subjects and events, and draw hypotheses.
With IBM investigative analytics software, EIA can now visually and persuasively demonstrate the nodes of inter-related criminal activities, providing a clearer picture to policy makers of what is happening in the black market. Analytics help to arrange and integrate information, suggest and draw common themes, reveal linkages and hone investigations to where the impact will be greatest.
By using this software, we’ve recently linked seemingly disparate cases of trafficking of different species to a group of enterprises, and then isolated further connections between associates of this network and additional trafficking cases in completely different countries. EIA can also export and share intelligence, tailored to partner specifications, with law enforcement agencies and other NGOs combating the illegal trade. Such results help EIA campaign for more meaningful and effective enforcement commitments.
EIA’s investigations into the illegal trade in Asian big cats — including tigers — demonstrate not only that the trade exists and is ongoing, but also the dynamics of the criminality involved and the impact that targeted, intelligence-led operations can have in breaking up the networks perpetuating the trade.
Charlotte Davies joined EIA in 2008, and works on illegal wildlife trade and forest issues. Join Charlotte and Shaun Hipgrave, Strategic Alliances, Intelligence Analysis, IBM UK, on a People for a Smarter Planet tweet chat on Thursday, 8 November at 9:00 AM ET (2PM UK time). To join, follow #P4SPChat.
EIA is an independent campaigning organization committed to bringing about change that protects the natural world from environmental crime and abuse. EIA can be followed on twitter @EIAinvestigator.