Together for a Sustainable Eco-future

by Prof. Zhiqiang Chen

According to UNEP-Interpol joint report1, Wildlife trafficking is estimated to be worth between US$7 and US$23 billion per year, making it one of the world’s largest international crimes after drugs, counterfeit goods and human trafficking. It usually involves the illegal importing and exporting of protected species of wild fauna and flora, as well as their derivative products, such as handicrafts, clothing, food items, beauty products or traditional medicines. The multi-billion-dollar illegal industry often entails illegal poaching, smuggling and transnational organized crime.

With unlawful poaching, illegal wildlife trade threatens the survival of countless species in the wild, causing devastating impacts on biodiversity and our vulnerable eco-system. Also, it negatively affects local communities’ economic livelihood from eco-tourism and deprives government of their tax revenues. As other organized crimes, illegal wildlife trade promotes social instability and fuels corruption. And alarmingly, it poses potential risks for human health through the spread of zoonotic diseases like SARS, MERS, or possibly COVID, making the fight against Wildlife trafficking even more urgent than ever before.

First line of defense

Slightly different from country to country, enforcement is often the responsibility of customs or border authorities. Customs are uniquely mandated and strategically positioned at the borders of a country, or at critical point in the supply chain, thereby they could play a critical role in combatting illegal wildlife trade when they practice control on the flow of people and goods. Serving as the first line of defense against the smuggling of wildlife contraband, customs might be the guardian to protect the biodiversity and our precious ecosystem.

Working for years to highlight the problem, WCO Council unanimously adopted the WCO Declaration on the Illegal Wildlife Trade in 20142, demonstrating the commitment of the global Customs community to address these crimes in a timely, coherent, and coordinated manner. As Mr. Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of WCO, stated in his latest remarks to celebrate the World Wildlife Day, the customs community is committed to ‘ensuring the sustainability of natural resources through legal trade’ and ‘maintained their efforts in disrupting the illegal trade in wildlife and forestry products, to continue to protect both communities and the environment’ despite the challenges during COVID. These endeavors pay off with successful interceptions and confiscations made through campaigns like Thunder operations3, dealing heavy blows to the illegal wildlife crimes across the world.

An uphill battle

Despite some success over the years, the fight against illegal wildlife trade is not an easy one for customs authorities. As one of the most lucrative illegal trades, it keeps permeating all the transportation mode and occurring in nearly every part of the world. Constantly changing routes and patterns, the organized criminal groups behind wildlife smuggling never stop searching for ways to avoid being noticed or intercepted by the authorities.
Concealed within carry-ons, checked baggage, courier packages, air freight or maritime shipping containers, wildlife contrabands find their way into the global network with increased creativity and sophistication. Finding a whole rhino horn or elephant tusk might be relatively easy. While with physical make-up constantly changing, wildlife products in various disguises can be very hard to identify or locate. Take rhino horns for example. They can be broken into cross-sections, smaller pieces, shavings, worked products like bracelets, handicrafts as carvings, or most tricky of all, powders for easier concealment. The huge varieties of shape and form pose great difficulty for human operators to detect them with bare eyes.

The evolving workforce is also casting a shadow on Customs’ fight against illegal wildlife trafficking, as COVID has resulted in labor shortages and great difficulty in retaining staff. The added workload for wildlife investigation can be a huge burden for the already strained workforce. In face of mounting pressure to enforce security and tax collection, customs officers might find it difficult to juggle among these missions in a time-constrained manner.

In addition, the close contact in manual inspection may potentially expose officers to dangerous infectious disease or even physical harms inflicted by live animals, making it somehow a risky task for frontline customs officers.
With E-commerce quickly picking up momentum these years, wildlife traffickers tend to increasingly exploit the new business model to transport wildlife contraband via parcels or express mails across borders. As low-value consignments flooding border crossings, the task for customs to fast detect and stop wildlife contrabands can be quite overwhelming.

Arsenal at hand

In possession of a sizable fleet of NII systems, most customs are well equipped with the necessary arsenal of detection tools already at their hands. For years, most customs have invested strategically on the X-ray inspection technology to stay at the forefront of their control mission. With constant upgrades and regular maintenance, most systems stay in good shape and well suited for detection of contrabands.

They provide customs sharp eyes to see through all sorts of conveyances in a quick and intrusive way, whether it be large Cargo/vehicle inspection system, small-apertured X-scanner, or the increasing popular Computed Tomography systems. They come in different size and configuration to cater for different carry-on, luggage, air freight or containers to help operator detect security threats or contraband without the need for physical checking, greatly facilitating the flow of people and goods across borders.

However, as is always the case, any system is only as good as the human who operates it. Despite being effective tools to identify anomalies, screening systems usually require operators to leverage rich expertise and constant training to find out the suspicious items and outmatch wildlife smugglers in the tough race to protect our ecosystem.

Image interpretation of an expansive wildlife items can be highly demanding and time-consuming. Irregularities of shape and form of wildlife items and intriguing ways of concealment also complicate the task for effective identification. Growing numbers of people, baggage and shipments also put pressure on customs officers for quick adjudication, negatively affect their judgement and result in risks of negligence or human error.

Upskilling with AI

Challenging as it is, there is good news for customs authorities to address the illegal wildlife trade. Over the years, technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have made great strides. Especially during the pandemic, they have been greatly accelerated in terms of application around the world. It is also the case for security sector. With more and more AI algorithms developed and deployed, increasing threat items, like explosives, narcotics, weapons, sharps, lithium batteries, now can be detected in an efficient manner.

The AI technology is a force-multiplier for the pre-existing X-ray systems to significantly augment their detection capability. Especially when integrated into the state-of-the-art CT scanners, the algorithm works best with the rich data including shape, density, atomic number, as well as the 3-dimensional volumetric information. The suspicious items can be virtually divested and rotated on-screen for a thorough investigation.

The AI technology is highly versatile when it comes to targets of interest. Exposed with image datasets of certain objects, AI algorithm climbs up the learning curve in a rather quick way. Also, its detection capability is not set in still. Instead, when feeding with increasing images, it can be a fast learner to constantly expand its detection scope and sharpen its skill with improved accuracy over time. Integrated into a bigger network, AI could take in all the information across different sources, piece them together, find out the pattern, reach a judgement and help detect coordinated threats from fragmented components.

AI algorithms knows no fatigue. With steady performance of all time, it greatly alleviates the cognitive burden of human operators by flagging the suspicious items on screen to alert for further inspection. With proper technical support, it can be the stellar ‘employee’ in the already volatile workforce with high level of loyalty and stability.

Most important of all, it boasts of high efficiency to detect varieties of wildlife items in different concealment within seconds. Time is gold, when it comes to the cross-border flow of E-commerce goods as well as some other special-purposed items like vaccines, or perishable goods. AI algorithms provides a sound solution for customs to facilitate the flow of time-sensitive goods, without compromising their duty to interrupt illegal trade.

Currently, the AI technology has already been applied on some of the X-ray systems, whether it be at airports, sea ports or border crossings. With initial focus mainly on security or revenue collection concerns, AI has proven its worth with increasing seizures and confiscations. Take weapon detection for example. It allows for a high detection rate of over 90% and low false alarm of less than 5% in field deployments. For high-value contrabands, like bottled liquids and cigarettes, the AI technology has also help customs officers to detect, interrupt and stop the smuggled goods. Numerous cases manifest the value of AI in the fight against illegal trade.

Leveraging the current fleet of NII, customs are well positioned to utilize AI to empower operators and boost their capacity to detect wildlife items in a timely manner. It saves them from other costly solutions like the workforce expansion or additional investment in new infrastructure, and ensures the high-pressured checkpoints running efficiently even with broader obligations to stop the illegal wildlife smuggling.

In addition, with only software investment, AI technology can be relatively more flexible and resilient to specific operational needs. It is envisaged that more and more bespoke algorithms would be developed and deployed to cater for different enforcement concerns, such as the ones already developed for ivory and rhino horn. Aided with information sharing, new trends and patterns of smuggling can be incorporated to inform algorithms to watch out for emerging transportation routes or hotspots. Enforcement can be more dynamic and responsive to enable targeted implementation.

Enforcement in action

Across the world, efforts to leverage AI into wildlife detection are well underway. The application of automatic detection of ivory and its ever-changing worked products, has proven to be highly successful in China for years. With expansive image training, the AI technology integrated into CT scanners constantly sharpens its skills and can now easily pinpoint tiny beads of ivory out of clutters within baggage. With automatic detection covering 100% inbound baggage, the customs of Chengdu have successfully thwarted over 86 cases of smuggling with a combined seizure of over 500 pieces of ivory products in a single year of 20184.

As a booster shot for inspection systems, AI allows customs to unleash the full potential of their legacy systems. It empowers and upskills the operators to better address the illegal wildlife crimes rampant across the world. With adequate training pictures, imagination is the only limit for its power.

For illegal wildlife combat, AI empowerment is no longer a distant call, but a here and now proposition. Coordinated efforts between public and private sectors needs to be promoted. With the integration of AI into inspection systems, customs hold the key to better protect wildlife species and safeguard our environment in a more responsible way. As human beings, we are not alone in this planet. Together, we could save the world for a bright eco-future.