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App Aims to Stop Poachers in their Tracks

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A custom’s officer from Phnom Penh International Airport identifies an endangered bird using the WildScan app at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. Freeland/Matthew Pritchett Freeland/Matthew Pritchett

Want to report illegal wildlife trafficking in real-time and stop poachers in their tracks? There’s an App for that. 
WildScan, launched last week in Khmer for iOS, is an interactive app designed to help wildlife enforcement agencies and the general public do just that — by allowing users to easily identify animals in danger of being trafficked and report crimes to the relevant authorities. 

At the helm of the project is Matthew Pritchett, deputy director of Freeland, the Bangkok-based counter-trafficking agency responsible for creating the app with support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). 

To test the app out, the director suggests a friendly competition.

“Alright, next one is up,” says Pritchett as he surveys the room of wildlife agents, environmental officers and press. 

On a blank white screen a picture of a small scaly creature appears. It is covered in a shell-like armor from tip to tail and resembles an ant-eater.

Utilizing the application’s built in features, Pritchett has proposed we play a game of speed — a race to identify a range of endangered species by their scientific names in the quickest time. 

Users have three ways of doing this — navigating the app’s identification wizard, directly inputting a word into its search tool or probing a list of over 500 available species. 

The identification wizard is straightforward enough. A button picturing a magnifying glass prompts the user to “identify specifies” and a range of simple questions appear: Is the animal intact? Covered in scales, fur or feathers? Smaller than the average dog or larger than you? 

With a push of a button results are compiled into a list of images displaying the species name,  how severely the animal is threatened, if it is dangerous or poisonous and its Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) appendix listing — an international agreement between governments restricting trade in endangered wildlife and plants — among a wealth of other descriptive information.  

Pritchett believes this tool provides a necessary advantage to field agents who must distinguish between thousands of species. 

“What if you find an animal you’ve never seen before?” he asks. “There are 35,000 species in CITES. Nobody can know all of them. So we created a tool in WildScan to help you narrow down the potential animals or products you’re looking at.”

The armor-clad animal in question is a Pangolin, and although most people are left scratching their heads, Pritchett tells us it is the most trafficked mammal on the planet. 

The app’s second most critical feature is its reporting tool. One photograph is all it takes to submit a potential trafficking report, which Pritchett contends, “Can be as simple or as detailed as you want it to be.”

Users can enter up to 2,000 words describing a potential infraction they believe has taken place. Before submitting a report, local wildlife and environmental organizations can also be “tagged,” alerting them to the potential crime. Users are also guaranteed confidentiality unless they opt to make their record public.
This reporting tool and a mapping feature, which displays a green symbol where crimes have been reported, are the application’s only two features that require an active internet connection. 

Once a report has been submitted, it is forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement officials. In Cambodia, reports are forwarded to the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT) — a group of government agents who receive training and support from the Cambodian Wildlife Alliance. The group has rescued over 60,000 live animals to date.  

Amy Van Nice, deputy director of programs at Wildlife Alliance, believes the application comes at a crucial time, as Cambodia has become a source, transit and destination point for the wildlife trade. 

“People don’t think of Cambodia as such an important player because it’s a small country, but it’s actually quite important in the global wildlife trade because it’s a transit point for wildlife and wildlife parts coming from Africa bound for Vietnam and China,” says Van Nice. 

In May 2014, three tons of African ivory — allegedly shipped from Malaysia — were seized at the port of Sihanoukville, the country’s largest elephant tusk bust in history. Smaller scale hauls of vehicles transporting ivory toward the Vietnam border or passengers transporting the illegal product in their suitcases have also been reported more recently. 

Although circumstances in the field remain challenging — the 12 men of the WRRT cover 25 provinces — Van Nice is hopeful the application will only further their dedicated efforts by empowering a greater number of people. 

“It puts the power in everyone’s hands. I’ve been in many situations where I see horrible things and I feel powerless, like there’s nothing I can do. But this app is one way where you can do something.

“Even if it turns out that [an act] is actually not illegal, you took the initiative. That’s quite empowering both for the average everyday person, the tourist and also for law enforcement who may not have the training or the background needed to really counter the trade,” Van Nice says. 

WildScan was developed as a part of Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking (ARREST) Program, the US government’s largest counter wildlife trafficking initiative funded by USAID. The app has been downloaded over 1,000 times and is available in six different languages for both Android and Apple devices. 

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