Environmental Crime Requires High-Tech Solutions


As criminals become more ingenious, law enforcement also has to become more inventive.

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Over recent decades, technological invention has allowed us to see more of the world, and its breathtaking biodiversity, than we ever imagined. Anyone with a good internet connection can now virtually visit the endangered gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the elephants of Kenya’s Maasai Mara, and the rainforest of the Amazon. Yet these same technologies that bring our eyes to nearly every corner of the planet also provide capacity to criminals who seek the high profit and low-risk nature of environmental crime

In fact, illicit environmental activities, such as wildlife crime, illegal exploitation of the world’s wild flora and fauna, and even new methods such as carbon trade and water management crime, have grown and are currently estimated to be worth up to $258 billion annually. And there is evidence that environmental crimes frequently converge with other serious crimes, such as human and drug trafficking, counterfeiting, cybercrime, and corruption. Environmental crime therefore presents a challenge that requires both high-tech invention and highly collaborative coordination. Global policymakers, law enforcement, and local communities must partner across multiple means and methods to put knowledge to purpose in order to strengthen environmental security worldwide. In short, as criminals become more ingenious, law enforcement also has to become more inventive.

Every meaningful effort to fight environmental crime begins with monitoring and communications, and technology has enhanced both the techniques and the tools available to the global community in this domain. A wide range of technology now allows us to scan across land and sea by using satellites, aerial drones, remote trigger systems that initiate cameras or other monitoring and security measures, thermal imaging cameras, and radio frequency identification. All this data can be collected and shared via secure information networks that allow local, national, and international law enforcement teams to analyze, communicate, and act to generate leads and disrupt the organized networks that profit from environmental crime.

This may sound like a Hollywood version of a military campaign until you consider how common it has become for global agencies and organizations to work together using technological inventions to pursue environmental criminals.

Take the challenge of tracking illegally sourced timber, which makes up the biggest portion of the annual cost of environmental crime at an estimated $152 billion. Years ago, this type of environmental crime was incredibly difficult to detect unless someone witnessed illegal forestry activity and monitored the supply chain. Today, tactics such as DNA analysis and stable isotope analysis—which helps identify the geographic origin of trees—have given rise to more sophisticated approaches and successful seizes of illegally sourced timber. 

The story of the Yacu Kallpa cargo ship is a good example. The Yacu Kallpa routinely traveled with timber from Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, to Houston, often making multiple trips each year. In 2016, following a detainment by United States authorities of 71 shipping containers from the vessel, which contained more than 3.8 million pounds of potentially illegally sourced timber, law enforcement agencies in multiple countries, and at international organizations such as Interpol and the World Customs Organization, began monitoring the ship. 

An investigation by Peru’s authorities determined that 90 percent of the load of timber—1.2 million cubic meters—leaving Iquitos on the vessel was harvested illegally. Law enforcement efforts began. Authorities monitored signals from the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) to track its progress, and Brazilian authorities confirmed that the illegal timber was onboard after briefly detaining the ship. When it reached Tampico, Mexico, local authorities confiscated some of the timber, which they confirmed was illegal.

In fact, global partnerships are where the fight against environmental crime turn from high tech to highly personal.

Another example is the Hua Li 8, a Chinese-flagged vessel that was suspected of illegal fishing within the Argentine Exclusive Economic Zone in February 2016. When confronted by the Argentine authorities, the vessel ignored authorities and refused to stop, fleeing into neighboring waters and onto the high seas. Interpol issued a “Purple Notice,” which asks member countries to seek or provide information on the methods and activities of a criminal, and other countries helped track the vessel as it traveled across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. 

The AIS, which helps ships avoid collisions through the electronic exchange of data with nearby vessels, coast guard stations, and satellites, also allowed international officials monitoring the Hua Li 8 to track it across the high seas. In collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts' project to end illegal fishing and Satellite Applications Catapult’s “Eyes on the Seas” technology, the Hua Li 8’s signal was tracked until the ship was intercepted by the Indonesian Navy. Technology also played a role in ensuring evidence was available to document the Hua Li’s illegal fishing. National enforcement agents, with the support of Interpol, were able to collect digital evidence from the vast array of electronic devices onboard, which led to a treasure trove of data on the ship’s movements and communications that will undoubtedly lead law enforcement to other potential criminal networks that operate in a similar fashion. 

In Kenya, another monitoring advancement can be seen in a project called tenBoma, which is led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Kenya Wildlife Service. Taking its name from a Kenyan community policing philosophy, Nyumba Kumi, which means “10 houses” in Swahili, the project combines high-tech data analysis, Kenyan national security operations, and community anti-poaching initiatives to stop poachers who are hunting wildlife such as elephants and rhinos. This multifaceted approach and community-led effort taps technologies such as geographical tracking to identify routes, DNA analysis to determine origin, and chemical isotope analysis to establish the age of individual species. 

Data Points

  • 258 billion is the current annual estimated worth of illicit environmental activities.

    Illicit environmental activities, such as wildlife crime, illegal exploitation of the world’s wild flora and fauna, and even new methods such as carbon trade and water management crime, have grown.

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  • 3.8 million pounds of potentially illegally sourced timber were found on a cargo ship in 2016.

    The “Yacu Kallpa” vessel routinely traveled with timber from Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, to Houston, Texas, often making multiple trips each year.

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  • While these technological advances are helping the global environmental community strengthen communications and monitoring, technology cannot be considered in isolation from those who use it. It is important to identify the most effective and suitable tools for the wide range of threats dealt with by law enforcement, but these tools also require skilled officers and professionals to maximize their potential. Another key consideration is to ensure that all legal aspects, including protection of human rights, are addressed before a new technology or equipment is introduced to the law enforcement arena. 

    In that regard, enforcement technologies and tactics have evolved considerably, but we need to ensure that the right tools are in the hands of those who need it most. Front-line tactical level officers require access to tools that provide the right information so they can make safe enforcement interventions and harvest the evidence that is ever increasingly electronic in nature. 

    Front-line tactical responses might mean providing support to rangers and law enforcement officers working in difficult or dangerous areas, such as the jungle, through the use of drones with thermal imaging cameras, range finders, or light-intensifying binoculars. Poachers are likely to have access to these modern technologies, and we need to equip those fighting crime with the same tools to effectively enforce the rule of law and protect vulnerable areas and species.

    Today, technological invention makes it possible for us to do more to protect the planet than ever before.

    When it comes to the front-line fight against environmental crime, training remains a fundamental element of effective enforcement. While digital forensics, drones, and databases are the inventions that receive attention, it is the ranger, operator, or officer who must be able to connect the digital dots to capture environmental criminals with the right evidence to shut down an operation or network. 

    Today, training takes many forms: from basic computer training to help front-line officers use new technologies, to training in digital forensics, evidence removal, and handling. The international community works together to harness the expertise of the private sector and governments to strengthen our response to environmental crime and help protect the planet. 

    Likewise, other international policy, development, and non-governmental organizations play vital roles, offering on-the-ground training and support to local communities, providing funding for countries to strengthen their internal resources and capacity, and developing networks of partners who work together to monitor and enforce environmental rule of law.

    In fact, global partnerships are where the fight against environmental crime turns from high tech to highly personal. Good communication and collaboration between global agencies and policymakers are vital but equally so are the relationships between country and local representatives, including tribal leaders and elected officials, and the public. Regular and sustained communication and information sharing are essential so that policymakers can inform and interest their constituents—ensuring public support and aiding monitoring and enforcement. 

    There are many strong examples of the power of partnership at play in fighting environmental crime today. Kenya’s tenBoma is one, but there are many partnerships that Interpol and other international organizations have developed, including with private firms that provide cyber security and digital forensics solutions, which can be implemented globally.

    As we look to the future, we know that advances in technology will act as a catalyst and have the potential to significantly contribute to progress toward global law enforcement goals and protect the rule of law. Yet we must marry technological invention and evolution with the fundamental elements of communication, partnership, and public education in order to be successful. No one tech tool can solve global environmental crime, just as no one country or organization can. 

    As environmental crime has grown, so has the recognition that nations must consider environmental security in line with national and economic security, and seek to protect environmental quality, natural resources, and biodiversity. Today, technological invention makes it possible for us to do more to protect the planet than ever before. We have the capacity and capability to thwart environmental crime, and working together, we can apply practical knowledge, innovation, and aspiration to solve global environmental challenges and strengthen security.

    Trend Magazine Summer 2017