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Tourists’ safari selfies get lots of likes . . . from poachers

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
Jane Flanagan, The Times | January 2, 2020

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Safari tourists bragging on social media about rare sightings of endangered animals in the Kruger National Park are unwittingly leading poachers to the rhinos and elephants that are under threat.

A rise in selfies and online boasting has also led to animals being killed on the South African reserve’s roads as visitors speed to grab the best videos and photographs “to gain views and following”, Ike Phaahla, a park spokesman, said.

Kruger National Park officials are now considering jamming its phone signal to stop holidaymakers from advertising the locations of the endangered creatures.

Original photo as published by The Times: Officials in the Kruger National Park in South Africa are considering blocking mobile signals to protect the location of endangered animals. (ALAMY)

“I think people would be shocked to know that their tips on sightings are being monitored by poachers,” Mr Phaahla added. “There can be terrible consequences for this technology and we are talking to experts to see what can be done to curb irresponsible behaviour. Cutting off the signal might end up being the answer.”

More than half of the 8,000 rhinos poached in South Africa between 2008 and 2018 were killed in the Kruger Park and adjacent private reserves. Elephant poaching in the park, which is roughly the size of Belgium, surged to a record high in 2018, with 71 killed for their ivory.

In recent weeks, three antelopes were killed by speeding motorists. The animals often laze on the warmth of the tarmac to rest between hunting and grazing. In November, a giraffe was killed when it was hit by a racing minibus and then catapulted on to the hired vehicle of a Swiss visitor who later died from his injuries. The speed limit on the park’s 1,900-mile road network is up to 30 miles per hour, depending on the quality of the surface.

The park first opened its gates 120 years ago and now draws more than 1.6 million visitors a year. A YouTube channel dedicated to the best Kruger park sightings captured by tourists and rangers has more than a million subscribers. A phone app providing real-time updates from the park with GPS co-ordinates has been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

Yet the mobbing of good sightings — such as a lion feeding on prey or herds of elephants — has led to traffic jams, road rage and tourists taking dangerous risks to see the event for themselves. Under pressure from tourists, rangers are abusing the radio network, which should be used only in emergencies, to share information. The so-called Kruger Park idiots channel on YouTube compiles some of the most hair-raising videos of reckless behaviour.

Mr Phaala said: “Until we can find a solution, we are calling for people to take their time, enjoy the scenery and peace and quiet and not rely on their phones to enhance their experience.”

In Western Australia, however, the authorities are actively encouraging visitors to get close to its wildlife. The prospect of selfies with the province’s famous quokkas, a species of marsupial whose “cheerful” demeanour has earned it the label “the happiest animal in the world” has become a key strategy to boost tourism.

When the tennis star Rafael Nadal, shared a selfie with a quokka on Rottnest Island, near Perth, with his 22 million followers on Instagram, Paul Papalia, the state tourism minister, predicted it would “supercharge the attraction of Western Australia’s slice of paradise globally”.



Putting a conservation finger on the internet’s pulse

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
The University of Helsinki / Science Daily | November 11, 2019

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Scientists from the University of Helsinki have figured out how to mine people’s online reactions to endangered animals and plants, so that they can reduce the chance of pushing species toward extinction.

When the last male northern white rhinoceros died in March 2018, online news printed obituaries, and millions of people grieved on social media. This one event alone quadrupled the number of posts using the keyword rhino, with the general sentiment expressed becoming distinctly negative.

Researchers at the Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science are keeping tabs on online trends that affect rhinos and other endangered species. They have developed a computer algorithm that continuously measures the volume of online discussions on the topic, and measures the emerging sentiments from users.

And it’s this key information that alerts the scientists whenever the average sentiment exceeds the norm, highlighting that a major event affecting species has occurred.

In their article published in the journal Biological Conservation, lead researcher Christoph Fink and his team highlight the possibilities and the precision of their online-mining method. Compiling an exhaustive list of all rhino-related online events that happened around the world over five months, the researchers’ method successfully identified all the major rhino-related events.

“We found that social-media users and online news writers care most about rhinos when tragic events take place, such as the death of the last northern white rhino,” Mr. Fink said. “But people love to share happy moments too, such as a rhino calf being born in a zoo.”

Social media posts and online news articles mostly agree on which events are important, the researchers found. However, most posts came from countries that do not have rhinos.

“We don’t think that this had much to do with the generally poorer internet access in countries where wild rhinos live, but more because many environmental agencies are based in Europe and in North America,” Mr Fink added.

New Methods for Complex Data

“We’re combining technologies from several fields, such as computer science, geography, and linguistics,” Mr. Fink said. “Automatic sentiment analysis reveals the feelings people express in text, and other so-called natural language processing techniques have not been used much in conservation science.”

The research team has collected around 5000 Twitter posts and 1000 online news articles in 20 different languages each day over the last five years. “But not every post is relevant,” explains Dr Anna Hausmann, one of the team members, “It’s so much data that we have to boil it down to the essential information. For instance, a government official might want to keep an eye on if and how people embrace a new conservation action, but they cannot possibly look through tens of thousands of posts each day to get the vibe of the population.”

Versatile Applications

The researchers’ new method can now be used for a wide range of conservation applications. Understanding how the public feels about the protection of certain animals, plants or landscapes will help in designing conservation policies that will be widely accepted, or to adapt strategies facing pushback.

The algorithm can also slow the spread of misinformation, fight prejudices, and debunk ineffective solutions promoted in social-media bubbles. The method can also be used to measure the effectiveness of education programmes and outreach campaigns, and it serves as a good starting point for gathering feedback on conservation tourism.

“We have finally shown how to use online network information to help conserve endangered animals and plants,” said team leader, Associate Professor Enrico Di Minin. “Ultimately, we want to gain a deeper understanding of how much people care about other species, and how much they are willing to invest to save them.” “Discerning how much people want to conserve species is essential for fighting the environmental crises unfolding around the world.”

Story Source: Materials provided by University of Helsinki. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference: Christoph Fink, Anna Hausmann, Enrico Di Minin. Online sentiment towards iconic species. Biological Conservation, 2019; 108289 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108289

University of Helsinki. “Putting a conservation finger on the internet’s pulse.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2019.

Holding social media companies accountable for facilitating illegal wildlife trade (commentary)

By Illegal trade, Law & legislation No Comments
Commentary by Daniel Stiles, Mongabay | October 25, 2019

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On a hot, muggy day in October, an exotic pet trapper in an Indonesian forest snatched a young Javan gibbon from its mother, stuffed the animal in a sack, and took to his heels. A day later, the gibbon, a protected species, was offered for sale on Facebook. A scroll down through the trafficker’s timeline reveals more gibbons, birds, and other endangered species on offer.

The sale of gibbons and endangered species is illegal under Indonesian law. In March of this year, traffickers in Indonesia were arrested and tried for the illegal sale of Komodo dragons on Facebook.

The same would not be true for another accomplice in this crime sequence: Facebook. When it comes to crime on social media, the enabler always walks free. It’s time for regulators to take steps to hold online platforms accountable for facilitating the illegal trafficking of wildlife.

For traffickers engaging in some of the world’s biggest black-market trades, Facebook Inc. is the enabler. The company serves as a vehicle for thousands of traffickers who sell illegal goods using Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram to market their goods, connect with and negotiate sales with buyers, and even receive payments.

More than two decades ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which included Section 230. The bill was meant to mitigate the risk for firms of hosting third-party content on Internet platforms. Senator Ron Wyden, one of the bill’s sponsors, said that CDA 230 was envisioned to provide a “sword and a shield.” The “sword” was meant to enable technology firms to self-police content on their platforms as they saw fit. The shield provided those platforms with sweeping immunity from liability for content posted by third-parties. As it turned out, the sword was made of rubber while the shield was Teflon.

Tech firms broadly — and Facebook in particular — failed to hold up their end of the bargain, however. Huge cyberspace marketplaces exist where buyers and sellers trade illegal products ranging from drugs, wildlife, antiquities, and human remains to human beings themselves. Facebook’s closed and secret groups provide insulated environments for transnational criminals to connect, advertise, and move material.

Facebook has a set of policies banning illegal activity, laid out in its Terms of Service and Community Standards. But these are only as effective as their enforcement, and the company’s content moderation leaves much to be desired.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: An ad on a Chinese social media site. (Image courtesy of Daniel Stiles)

Facebook and other social media firms mainly rely on algorithms and artificial intelligence to moderate harmful content. But investigations by the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO), where I am a contributing member, show time and again how these algorithms actually connect traffickers faster than moderators can remove their accounts. They suggest friends and recommend groups, putting illicit actors in touch with one another, continually expanding networks of users engaging in similar illegal activities.

In response to increasing pressure from wildlife organizations, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals in 2017. But a cursory search on either platform will turn up countless groups and individuals still advertising domestic and exotic pets, even zoo animals, for sale. Ivory and rhino horn are sold, using code words, in closed groups. The same is true on other online platforms such as Alibaba, Taobao (owned by Alibaba), Google, Baidu, and more. Along with Facebook and Instagram, these platforms are all founding members of the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. Launched in May 2018, the coalition’s stated goal is to reduce online wildlife trafficking by 80 percent by 2020. The technology companies involved in the Coalition are very far from achieving that goal.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has 183 Parties, countries that represent a majority of the world’s nations. The organization, grappling with how to address wildlife cybercrime, recently introduced a revised resolution that included key recommendations to deal with these online issues. The amended resolution was accepted, making clear that CITES Parties recognize that it is up to them and not to the online platforms to develop measures to control the illegal trade in wildlife.

A crucial revision noted that the resolution recommends that Parties “identify key contacts at online technology and data companies that can facilitate the provision of information upon request from Parties in support of investigations.”

In November 2016, one such key contact emailed me after seeing an article in the New York Times regarding my work identifying the role of Facebook Inc.’s platforms in the rampant illicit ape trade. Max Slackman, Facebook’s animals policy manager, wrote to me, in part: “We would like to learn more about your investigation and if there are additional learnings you can share …. In the meantime, please send us over any Facebook and Instagram accounts, Pages, or groups that offer to sell endangered animals. We will investigate immediately.”

I sent him information and asked if there was any way that he or Facebook could help in the investigation of the dealers and assist in arrests and prosecutions. As ACCO researchers have pointed out time and again, closing accounts doesn’t stop the trafficking — traffickers simply set up new accounts with tighter privacy. Not only that, but Facebook’s practice of deleting accounts, rather than archiving and disabling them, erases years of valuable evidence that could actually help prosecute these criminals and impact the illicit trade.

Slackman’s response was one that we at ACCO have come to find typical of a company that is skirting responsibility for crime on its platforms: “We do work with law enforcement through the warrant process and… We try to make the process as easy as possible for law enforcement to produce legally sufficient warrants, but due to our privacy policy and requirements we are not able to share information about accounts with third parties.”

While hiding behind the company’s “privacy policy,” Slackman essentially confirmed that Facebook does not take proactive measures to counter crime. His response framed the company’s internal policies as a more powerful factor in their actions than the presence of activity that violates national and international laws.

Individuals selling illegal commodities online can be prosecuted, but there are not yet any legal pathways in the U.S. that formalize and regulate cooperation between online service providers and law enforcement, mainly due to privacy policies and regulations.

The crux of the problem in getting effective cooperation from the titans of Silicon Valley to push illegal and dangerous activities offline is the uncomfortable fact that such cooperation conflicts with their business model. The online service providers make their money from user engagement and ‘clicks,’ whether it be to purchase a commodity, to read an advertisement, or, in the case of online black markets, do business with a trafficker. Any actions that service providers take to reduce user engagement reduces their bottom line.

Big tech has made clear they aren’t interested in wielding their sword. It’s up to governments to enact legislation that compels social media firms to modify their algorithms to detect illegal activity instead of facilitating it. Facebook, Google, and other technology firms are sophisticated and rake in billions in annual revenue. They’re more than capable of combating the crime on their platforms, but there’s nothing in the law that requires them to do so. That needs to change. The U.S. Congress has started the discussion. Other countries where online platforms are based that engage in illegal wildlife trade, particularly China, need to step up their enforcement actions as well.

Legislatures will have to achieve the admittedly difficult task of assigning responsibility to online service providers to decide how to balance free speech, legitimate commerce, and user privacy against dangerous communications, illegal trade, and reporting user abuse to the appropriate national and international authorities. The current service provider response of simply removing posts or closing accounts does not solve the problem.

Daniel Stiles is currently an independent wildlife trade investigator. He has conducted numerous investigations into illegal ivory, rhino horn, pangolin, great ape and big cat trade, funded by various United Nations agencies, IUCN, TRAFFIC, and many wildlife conservation NGOs. He has lived in Kenya since 1977.