Researchers Turn to Social Media & AI in Effort to Fight Back against Illegal Wildlife Trade


The prevention of cruelty to animals is no longer seen as a pastime of hippies and strange folk who sit in fields all day, and rightly so. This issue has over the past few decades taken its rightful place at the forefront of the public eye, and increasing efforts are being made to stop those who may cause harm in their tracks.

Social media is unfortunately a breeding ground for unethical and often harmful practices concerning animals. All-too-many travellers will happily post a plethora of pics showing them embracing some exotic creature, often unaware of the savage treatment, beatings and druggings the poor animal has received to place it in such a docile state. In fact, it was only fairly recently that Instagram announced their intention to take substantial steps towards resolving this particular problem on their own platforms. Photography is far from the only issue negatively affecting the natural world however, as social media is also a hub for a far more organised form of widespread cruelty – the illegal trade of wildlife.

In an effort to fight back against the poachers and illegal traders of the world who use social networks as a point-of-sale, a team of researchers from University of Helsinki’s Digital Geography Lab recently conducted a project which aimed to ascertain how we may utilise these same social networks, along with a helping hand from artificial intelligence systems, to turn the traders’ favoured communicative technologies against them.

“With an estimated two and a half billion users, easy access has turned social media into an important venue for illegal wildlife trade,” Enrico Di Minin, a conservation scientist working on the project, told Digital Trends. “Wildlife dealers active on social media release photos and information about wildlife products to attract and interact with potential customers, while also informing their existing network of contacts about available products. Currently, the lack of tools for efficient monitoring of high volume social media data limits the capability of law enforcement agencies to curb illegal wildlife trade. We plan to develop and use methods from artificial intelligence to efficiently monitor illegal wildlife trade on social media.”

So, Di Minin and the wider research team set about designing a system that they hope will be able to comb through social media posts to identify images, metadata, and phrases associated with illegal wildlife trade, including both specific products and the animals themselves. Such artificial intelligence systems are a necessity for the task at hand, as the sheer amount of data to go through would make the task all-but-impossible without.

“Illegal wildlife trade is booming online, in particular on social media,” Di Minin asserts. “However, big data derived from social media requires filtering out information irrelevant to illegal wildlife trade. Without automating the process with methods from artificial intelligence, filtering high-volume content for relevant information demands excessive time and resources. As time is running out for many targeted species, algorithms from artificial intelligence provide an innovative way to efficiently monitor the illegal wildlife trade on social media.

“Potentially, such algorithms can also identify code words that illegal smugglers use in place of the real names … by processing verbal, visual and audio-visual content simultaneously,” Di Minin concluded.

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