Saturday, February 23, 2013

World Wildlife Fund Turns to UAVs to Tackle Poaching

WWF officials with UAVs in Nepal

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has recently turned to using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in an effort to combat the illegal poaching of elephants, rhinos, and tigers conducted by increasingly complicated and fully equipped cartels. The organization provided two hand-launchable UAVs to the Nepali government in 2012. In December of that year, Google awarded WWF $5 million to create more extreme UAV systems in hopes that they will minimize poaching of endangered species and help save lives of rangers and other wildlife officials appointed to protect them. One particular UAV system that is currently in development is dubbed SMART. This system, which is comprised of UAVs, sensors, and software, will enable authorities to fight poaching more strategically. In order to do this, the system will concurrently track the locations of animals, poachers, and rangers. Of these, tracking rangers and other law enforcement units will be easy since they will be given GPS units. Animals, on the other hand, will be little more challenging since they require electronic tagging. Tracking poachers will require a UAV video surveillance flowed to operators on the ground. This will be boosted by the adding of night-vision cameras and thermal imaging (if possible). The data will be assembled and analyzed by a data management system at the ground control center. This will allow rangers to be utilized in locations, where they will intercept or surround the poachers before they can reach their intended targets.

Crawford Allen of the WWF suggested that countries who are partners with the organization may provide their own UAVs. In addition to Nepal, Namibia is another one of the four countries, two in Africa and two Asia, where SMART could be deployed. Allan also stated that Namibia already has its domestic low-cost UAV possibly acceptable for the job. In addition, the WWF is still in talks with UAV manufacturers to create a working system. The organization's purpose is to provide software and training, and if necessary, hardware, to countries plagued with the ongoing threat of poaching. Allen further explained that individual governments of these countries will operate their own initiatives. He is also keen to urge that in addition to UAVs, other advanced technological options can be implemented for conservation surveillance. These methods include closed-circuit television cameras on poles, which have been placed at the boundaries of Corbett National Park in India and fastened surveillance balloons outfitted with 360-degree day and night-vision cameras.

I'm extremely impressed and proud that the World Wildlife Fund has turned to a series of technological methods to tackle poaching. One of these is through the use of UAVs, especially in areas that have suffered tremendously from the threat of poaching. This tactic was first implemented in Nepal, and is now in the process of being carried out in other countries. Some countries like Namibia and South Africa have already deployed their own individual UAV systems to combat poachers. The rise of rhino poaching in South Africa had grown from 448 animals killed in 2011 to 633 last year. Recently, in 2013, the death toll increased to 102. What is even more scary is that majority of the rangers and other law enforcement units are at risk of being ambushed and outgunned, due to hi-tech sophisticated equipment such as night vision goggles carried by poachers. For this reason, South Africa resorted to developing its UAV system to prevent any further casualties of rangers against their adversaries.

In addition, the poaching of elephants has also followed a similar upward curve in recent years. In countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cameroon, and others, the elephants are in the midst of a brutal and bloodthirsty slaughter from not just poachers but militant groups like the Janjaweed, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and the Shabab. These sadistic factions see the ivory as key to fund their civil wars, which involve brutally massacring innocent civilians. Furthermore, rangers and other authorities are at a far greater risk of being killed or even having their loved ones end up in the murderous hands of these cutthroats. This is why I believe it is absolutely crucial to provide these countries with UAVs to prevent any further casualties of wildlife officials. The vehicles would not only help the authorities in protecting elephants and other wildlife, but also people at risk of being ruthlessly slaughtered by these groups. The threat of poaching has kept up with the latest technology in recent years, and now it is time to become even with this ongoing terror threatening to wipe out both animal and human off the face of the earth.

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Strict Measurements Refrain Illegal Ivory Trade in China

Seized elephant tusks in Hong Kong

Experts have recently stated that China's tough management and registration system can strongly prevent ivory from entering the domestic market. Jin Yu, a researcher from the Northeast Forestry University, stated that the nation has initiated an information control system tougher than the ideals of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Jin described it as an identification system, where there is an identification card on every product that contains information regarding the product's appearance, size, and digital code. This card can be used to acquire further information about that product, including its original material, through an online database. She further added that the registration system keeps track of ivory until it is made into a product, and reviews each period of development for weight gain. This identification system was first introduced in 2003, and has tremendously helped the customs, police, and other law enforcement officials constrain the illegal ivory trade. However, Jin also warned that lack of experience and knowledge may cause incorrect reports and surveys that may result in accusations that the market has ivory products coming from illegal sources.

Furthermore, all factories manufacturing ivory products and stores selling them are registered. According to Yan Xun, an official with the State Forestry Administration, it is only with the government's online approval can such factories and stores be in business. Those that are without the approval can be punished. He further added that the administration has discovered that Chinese tourists traveling to Africa often purchase ivory ornaments and simply carry them back to their home country, not knowing that they are breaking the law. In response, Chinese embassies in African countries are becoming involved by warning tourists not to bring ivory products back. In addition, local wildlife management authorities have also taken the initiative to combat wildlife crime with the rise of e-commerce. Yan also stated that China's restrictive penalties for the illegal ivory trade have averted perpetrators with life imprisonment being the highest sentence.

I'm very impressed and proud to see what China is doing in its efforts to combat the illegal ivory trade. This article contains information indicating a stark contrast of China being the driving force of the trade. For example, a survey in 2011 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that collaborative efforts by the government and heavy progress have been made to employ the registration system on ivory products and raise public awareness over the past five years. In addition, the report also stated that China attained progress in controlling wildlife crimes online by educating the online industry and urging it to include wildlife into the online trade policies. In 2005, China's largest online marketplace Taobao banned listings of ivory and employed the ban by education and disclosure of code words to remove ivory listings. Another website that traded in ivory,, has also eliminated the section of ivory trading and implemented notices of the wildlife trade ban throughout the site. In addition to banning the illegal wildlife trade online, China has also taken a firm stand against wildlife crimes in recent years. A recent example was seen from January 6 to February 5, 2013 in which China led an operation codenamed "Cobra" which included 22 African and Asian countries. The operation exposed more than 200 cases involving trafficked wildlife parts, and resulted in arrests of more than hundred suspects. It also confiscated 6.5 metric tons of ivory, 1.6 tons of shahtoosh, 22 rhino horns, ten tiger skins, and other protected plant and animal species and products derived from them. This goes to show that global partnership, especially amongst countries hit hard by poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, always helps in an effort to combat and curb such crimes against wildlife. I also hope that this joint effort will continue to help in the future for the benefit of the world's wildlife.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Malaysian Man Receives Reduced Sentence for Possession of Wildlife Products

Tiger skins possessed by Mohd Nor Shahrizam Nasir

It has been recently reported that a Malaysian court has delivered a reduced sentence to a 29-year-old man named Mohd Nor Shahrizam Nasir. Nasir, who has been found guilty on two counts of illegal possession of wildlife products, has been sentenced sixty months. However, because the punishment is viewed as circumstantial, his adequate jail term is only two years. The wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, has expressed its concern towards the mild sentencing and is especially worried that the period of sentence challenges existent laws. According to Dr. William Schaedla, regional director of TRAFFIC's Southeast Asia operations, the sentence is "shocking and disappointing." According to the existent wildlife laws, any individual found guilty of  possessing wildlife parts faces a commanding fine of not less than RM100,000 and not more than RM500,000. In addition, the individual faces a jail term not surpassing five years. There has been no fine imposed on Nasir. As of now, his sentence has been awaiting an appeal and he can leave on bail for RM80,000.

I'm extremely disappointed and appalled by the way the Malaysian judicial system exercises its laws against wildlife smugglers and other criminals notorious for pillaging and plundering the world's endangered wildlife. In spite of the efforts conducted by TRAFFIC to bring these remorseless and sadistic individuals to justice, the judicial system has always been very lenient towards their sentencing. For example, in September 2011, a convicted wildlife smuggler named Anson Wong was found guilty of smuggling 95 boa constrictors, one mata mata turtle, and two rhinoceros vipers from Penang to Jakarta. In response, the Sepang Magistrate's Court sentenced the wildlife smuggler to six months in jail and fined him RM190,000. The fine was then put aside on appeal to the High Court, but his sentence rose to five years. Unfortunately, a Court of Appeal cut that sentence to seventeen-and-a-half months last year. This meant that Wong had already served his sentence from September 7, 2010. The Malaysian judicial system needs to wake up and realize just how ominous the threat of poaching and wildlife trade much like trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons. The syndicates that operate the trade have even gained notoriety for funding rebel groups and militias in Africa in carrying out their bloodthirsty civil wars against innocent civilians. Members who are part of this illicit global trade system should be given stiff prison sentences varying from five years to life in prison.

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