HomeTechnologyArtificial intelligenceLizard in your luggage? We're using artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trafficking

Lizard in your luggage? We’re using artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trafficking

A scanned lace monitor lizard (Varanus varius) image produced using new technology. Credit: Rapiscan Systems, Author Provided

Blue-tongued lizards and sulfur-crested cockatoos are among the native animals often smuggled overseas.

Although the number of live animals seized by the Australian government has tripled since 2017, the full extent of the problem eludes us because authorities often do not know where and how wildlife is traded. Now we can add new technology to Australia’s arsenal against this cruel and inhumane industry.

Our research, published in Frontiers in conservation science today demonstrates the potential for new technology to detect illegal wildlife in baggage or mail. This technology uses artificial intelligence to recognize the shapes of animals when scanned on international front lines such as airports and postal centers.

Exotic species are also smuggled go inside the land, such as snakes, turtles and fish. This could disrupt Australia’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industries by introducing pests and diseases, and could also threaten fragile native ecosystems.

An animal welfare problem

The wildlife trade is driven by several factors, including alleged medicinal purposesanimals with ornamental value or for the illegal pet trade.

It can be fatal as it usually involves the transportation of individual animals in tight or confined environments. As a result, the animals often become stressed, dehydrated and die.

Some people have even tried to use chip packages smuggling Australian animals.

Traffickers often transport several people at once, in the hope that one animal will make it alive.

We don’t know the full picture of what animals are traded, how they are traded, or even when it takes place. But examples of seized cases in Australia suggest that traffickers value Aussie reptiles and birds.

Lizard in your luggage?  We use artificial intelligence to track wildlife trade

Shingleback lizards are one of the most trafficked animals in Australia. Credit: Shutterstock

For example, shingleback lizardsa species of blue-tongued lizard, is considered one of Australia’s most traded species.

In addition to being cruel and inhumane, the wildlife trade may also lead to the introduction of aliens to new environments.

This poses significant biosecurity risks. For example, zoonosis (disease that jumps from a non-human animal to a human) includes people handling stressed, wild animals. Exotic species can also disrupt natural ecosystems, as we have seen with the damage done by cane toads in Northern Australia.

Unregulated wildlife entering the country can also harbor new diseases or destructive parasites. This could harm the agricultural industry and potentially increase the prices of our fruits and vegetables.

Create a human trafficking image library

Our new research documents a variety of animal species, which have been scanned using state-of-the-art technology to help build computer algorithms using ‘Real Time Tomography’.

Real-time tomography is an imaging technique that uses a series of X-rays to scan an item (such as a lizard). It then produces a three-dimensional image of the animal which is in turn used to develop algorithms. For example, mail and baggage can be scanned at the airport and, if wildlife is contained, the algorithms will alert operators to their presence.

Our study scanned known species of traded Australian animals to create an image reference library. A total of 294 scans of 13 species of lizards, birds and fish were used to develop initial wildlife algorithms, with a detection rate of 82% and a false alarm rate of just 1.6%.

This study is the first to document the use of 3D X-ray CT security scanning technology for wildlife protection within the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It is also the first to report results for the detection of reptiles, birds and fish within such scans.

The detection tool is designed to complement existing detection measures by the Australian Border Force, biosecurity officers and sniffer dogsthat remain crucial in our fight against wildlife crime.

Lizard in your luggage?  We use artificial intelligence to track wildlife trade

Wildlife algorithm successfully detects a shingleback lizard. This is a screenshot of the user interface notifying the operator of a detected shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) via the green selection box that labeled it as a lizard. Credit: Pirotta et al. 2022

How else do we stop the wildlife trade?

The tools currently assisting in detecting and limiting wildlife trade are primarily based on human detection methods.

This includes investigation into cybercrime or Australian Border Force and biosecurity officers manually searching bags. Biosecurity detection dogs airport patrols are also helpful, as are smartphone reporting apps like the Wildlife Witness App.

Efforts to dismantle illegal trade networks at source are also crucial. This is by understanding and reducing consumer demand for wildlife and wild animals products, providing alternative livelihoods for potential poachers and enforcing stronger governance and oversight.

Seized animals can be used as evidence to identify traffickers, with previous cases resulting in successful prosecutions by environmental investigators. For example, a former rugby league player is four years in prison after being caught smuggling a variety of animals in and out of Australia.

Continue the fight

All these measures help fight wildlife tradebut there is no single solution to predict when and where events are likely to take place.

Wildlife traffickers can often modify their behavior to avoid being noticed. As a result, innovative and adaptive solutions, such as our new technology, are essential to support existing detection techniques.

Any attempt to eradicate this horrific activity is a step in the right direction, and the potential for 3D detection allows us to adapt and evolve with how traffickers can change their behavior.


Using 3D X-ray technology to detect illegal wildlife trade


More information:
Vanessa Pirotta et al, Detecting Illegal Wildlife Trafficking through Real-time Tomography 3D X-ray Imaging and Automated Algorithms, Frontiers in conservation science (2022). DOI: 10.3389/fcosc.2022.757950

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Quote: Lizard in your luggage? We use artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trade (2022, September 24), retrieved September 24, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-lizard-luggage-artificial-intelligence-wildlife.html

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