Hunting illegal wildlife smugglers by their digital tracks

Shingleback lizard

The multi-billion-dollar international trade in exotic wildlife can have devastating effects on our environment and biodiversity. A bewildering number of species are involved in this industry, much of which is illegal or unsustainable.

Invasive species and diseases can be introduced when exotic wildlife is brought into Australia. Likewise, the widespread poaching of our native wildlife, particularly reptiles, is growing as the demand from collectors increases.

One species at high risk is our unique Shingleback lizard. Also known as the Sleepy or Bobtail lizard, it is prized by international collectors, and differences in international laws mean that once smuggled out of Australia, their trade in places like Europe, Japan and America can’t be stopped.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide are leading the fight to protect our native wildlife. The team from the Invasion Science and Wildlife Ecology Group, led by Dr Phill Cassey of the School of Biological Sciences, is using sophisticated web-scraping and machine learning technology to monitor the illegal online trade.

“Using data science and statistical approaches we can identify patterns: what species are involved, their characteristics, and where they are traded,” says Dr Cassey. “We then work with government stakeholders to inform them of current and future trends and risks.”

His colleague Dr Oliver Stringham of the School of Mathematical Sciences explains how these tools can be utilised to track this illegal trade in the web.

“Web-scraping bots can extract large amounts of data from wildlife trading sites across the surface web, deep web and dark web,” Dr Stringham says, “machine learning techniques including image classification and text classification can then be used to clean and automate the processing of the vast amounts of data collected.”

This research helps Australian environmental biosecurity authorities build awareness of the scale of the problem, as well as uncovering specific areas of concern for enhancing surveillance and enforcement.

They’ve recommended a pathway for better use of the international legislation for protecting species like the Shingleback and developed an approach for predicting the future reptile species most likely to be trafficked into Australia. The findings give insight into the drivers of illegal wildlife trade and a framework for anticipating future trends in wildlife smuggling.

“We’ve achieved several firsts with this research including creating a framework for researchers to systematically track online trade,” says Dr Cassey, “and we are providing evidence on which charismatic Australian species are being smuggled out of country.”

Mr Adam Toomes, PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Sciences, said that shinglebacks are not the only species affected by international trade.

"Shinglebacks provide a case study for an issue relevant to a much larger diversity of endemic reptiles, including other species of bluetongue, Egernia skinks, velvet geckos, earless dragons, knob-tailed, spiny-tailed and leaf-tailed geckos. We need a mechanism of preventing, or at least controlling, the overseas trade of these species. To this end, we welcome the recent proposal by the Commonwealth government to list these reptiles in CITES – a global treaty that regulates trade of species known to be under threat from unsustainable trade,” says Mr Toomes.

What’s next?

“We’re expanding our surveillance to the invertebrate and plant trade as well as developing a range of tools and studies to help fight this illegal trade.” Dr Cassey says.

This future work will range from employing molecular tools for detecting trace DNA in the illegal wildlife trade to understanding why more Australians are desiring illegal exotic pets to better allow authorities to develop more effective strategies to end the trade.


Photo credit: Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

Tagged in Environment, sustainability and climate change