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This invention is bad news for illegal hunters and poachers

November 15, 2022
topic:Hunting & Poaching
tags:#India, #wildlife, #technology, #hunting, #poaching
located:India, Kenya
by:Rishabh Jain, Sutapa Baksi
A new data management system developed in southern India is hailed as a game-changer in the crackdown on wildlife crime.

If one were to look for annual statistics about wildlife crime in India, individual cases would pop up instantly, but it would take a while to come across a reliable figure.

"No one knows," was the answer given to FairPlanet by Jose Louies, deputy director and chief of the Wildlife Crime Control Division at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

Manu Sathyan, divisional forest officer of the Flying Squad at Ernakulam, corroborated Louise's statement. "No one has a clear picture of the [extent of the] crime that is ongoing," he said.

"What we do know and can collectively agree upon," he added, "is that several pockets of the country - especially south-central states with a relatively high forest cover – are a hotbed of poaching and illegal trading, and have been so for years now."

"The worst part is," he went on, "a whole host of them could've been avoided if concerned officials had access to consolidated data and intelligence."

This was the general conclusion following an infamous era of ivory smuggling in 2015 - which was brought to an end through Operation Shikkar, whereby 73 people were arrested and 487 kilos of ivory were seized - as well as the resurfaced illegal poaching that took place in forested areas covering Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu between 2016 and 2017. 

Tackling Data loopholes

Throughout most of India, wildlife crime data collection is an extensively manual process: records are transferred from field officials to higher ups, and are subject to changes.

"The non-digital nature of the data makes it hard to share across departments and states," Sathyan of Ernakulam explained, "as a result of which known, repeat offenders of animal poaching get to continue their operations while hiding under the radar."   

He added that smugglers benefit from the fact that forest officials often enter data erroneously or mendaciously about instances of wild elephant killings in their jurisdiction in order to avoid departmental action or interrogation.

Many such individual cases piled up over the years, and stakeholders realised there is a need for a central a monitoring mechanism to keep track of wildlife crimes in different regions.

With these observations in mind, Leopard Tech Lab, a small IT company based in the southeastern state of Kerala, designed a techno-reliant conservation database and platform known as HAWK (Hostile Activity Watch Kernel).

Leopard Tech comprises of young technicians who have helped build this platform with an aim to dismantle India’s illegal wildlife product trade network using a central monitoring framework, a digital filing system for forest offenses and analytical intelligence pertaining to conservation technology. 

The platform was inspired by TenBoma, a US military project associated with the International Fund for Animal Welfare that was designed to curtail elephant poaching and ivory trading in Africa.

HAWK works on military intelligence gathering principals to centralise random pieces of intel into a common database. 

Repeated offenses spotted

When the 2015 ivory case was cracked, it was revealed that perpetrators belonged to a trade network spanning the entire country and not just the southern states where the killings repeatedly took place.

Arrests were made from Kolkata, New Delhi and other metropolitan cities, and it was later discovered that several key figures involved in the case were repeat offenders who managed to escape the system simply due to the decentralised nature of Intel.

"In the end, we began to reflect on what actually went wrong," said Sathyan. "The officers in duty kept changing, new officers were unfamiliar with the names and cases, and there was no follow up with habitual offenders, so they ran free. Something had to be done to plug these gaps."

These loopholes in the system, one of the first major factors that enables wildlife crime, is what HAWK was designed to address.  

"The Forest Offence Management System under Project HAWK will help in dealing with all kinds of forest offences," Surendra Kumar, a retired principal chief conservator of forests of the Kerala and special monitor at the National Human Rights Commission, told FairPlanet. "Frontline staff will feed data to the system whenever an offense is detected." 

"And the system will generate the forms automatically for submission before court," she added. "This will help in creating a crime or criminal database and also will bring in more transparency, efficiency and reduce mistakes while documenting any offenses." 

Apart from the Offence Management System, HAWK has also encompassed a Wildlife Mortality Monitoring System - a mobile app for officers through which they can view data in the HAWK database.

The company is also developing a system for vehicle search - a forest check-post management system for inspecting vehicles, and plans to look into a habitual offender tracking system.

Since mid-August 2020, all forest offenses booked in Kerala have been managed entirely through the system, which follows a case from its detection to its prosecution.

"The system has been fully operational in Kerala for the past two years," said WTI’s Louise, "and we're also expanding into Karnataka."

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has also been using the platform for the past three years to effectively deal with criminal networks in the country. 

With institutional support pouring in from bigger IT companies, the platform is likely to be customised in accordance with the requirements of individual states, which would lead to further centralisation of data and intelligence. 

Image by Kevin Folk.

Article written by:
Rishabh Jain
Sutapa Baksi
India Kenya
Embed from Getty Images
Leopard Tech Lab, a small IT company based out of Kerala, designed a techno-reliant conservation database.
Embed from Getty Images
“What we do know, and can collectively agree upon, is that several pockets of the country - especially south-central states with a relatively high forest cover - are a hotbed of poaching and illegal trading."
Embed from Getty Images
Since mid-August 2020, all forest offenses booked in Kerala have been managed entirely through HAWK's system.
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