June 29, 2020



The multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade is a global crisis that not only threatens the conservation of protected species but also has deep implications for peace and security in nations across the world. As wildlife trafficking becomes more organized and illegal trade of wildlife continues to flourish on the ground and in cyberspace, there is an urgent need for a concerted international effort to gather and share wildlife crime information among law enforcement and policymakers, empowering them to stem the tide of wildlife trafficking. There are several good examples out of such efforts, primarily by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and INTERPOL, to combat wildlife poaching and transboundary illegal wildlife trade. At a policy level, the formation of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC)1 can be
considered as one of the major achievements in recent times, where CITES, INTERPOL, World Bank, UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) and World Customs Organization have come together as one unit to address the issue. The good work done by civil society, including WWF, TRAFFIC, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and member organizations of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Species Survival Network (SSN) including grass root NGOs, is noteworthy as well. Yet, combating wildlife crime remains a big challenge. The collective efforts of the conservation community and governments are still unable to check the behaviour of poaching syndicates and organized criminals. We remain far behind in finding an adequate response to the crisis.

The role of the research community in joining these efforts has been constrained due to several reasons. The main reason is the difficulty in getting access to crime-related data from the national enforcement agencies. Second, scientific research based on wildlife crime data so far has not made any significant contribution in tracking criminals or in reducing the levels of poaching. These two factors have created a disjoint and rendered science less relevant in policy-making in response to poaching. Science is currently more insightful for assessing threats to species and in negotiations of trade bans of specific species. A third constraint lies in that a problem for a scientist may not be “the” problem for a policymaker – a reason why very few scientists (exceptions are research through DNA analysis) have come up with viable solutions for addressing enforcement and compliance of CITES.
Technocratic solutions run the risk of developing over-elaborate tools, which are unsuitable to the task and operation of combating poaching. Even if such a tool is developed, enforcement officials are reluctant to use it. The reason is quite
obvious – as one government official from an African country puts it, “when we do not have enough manpower to run a combat operation against poachers, do you think we should prioritize our resources developing information systems?” In addition, the beliefs within the wildlife policy subsystem remain severely polarized, primarily between the proponents and opponents of trade rendering a politicized science emerging from each faction.
With all these constraints, the UN system is experiencing the odd circumstance of asking governments from developing countries to control poaching while simultaneously being unable to offer necessary resources (scientific, technological and financial) for them to bring it under control.
Responding to this situation, the United Nations University (UNU), the research arm of the UN, aims to address this issue more pragmatically with intense grass root level capacity development and practical research by bringing together governments, UN agencies, industry, research institutions, civil society and local communities to a common understanding on dealing with poaching and wildlife crime.
With this objective, in 2005, UNU developed the first prototype of a transboundary information sharing platform – Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System (WEMS)2. In 2007, in order to maintain the sovereignty of wildlife crime data, UNU sought the direct participation of government agencies in compiling wildlife crime seizure information into the system. In 2011, with the support of the UNU Campus Computing Centre the early prototype was redesigned to meet the actual needs of government agencies based on feedback gathered from a capacity building workshop held in Kenya3. Following the workshop, the milestone transition from prototype to an operational version began, with WEMS establishing its first roots in Africa.
Also in 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS), Lusaka Agreement Task Force for Co-operative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora (LATF) and the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) of the University of Twente to further develop WEMS as a common information sharing platform between government agencies and research institutions with necessary protection protocols for the enforcement data. The same year, UNU-IAS and the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University signed a Memorandum of Understanding to incorporate WorldMap functionalities into WEMS, thereby bringing in additional datasets on civil conflicts, terrorism and socio-economic data from the Harvard University library into the WEMS system…

Bytes beyond Borders: Strengthening Transboundary Information Sharing on Wildlife Crime through the Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System (WEMS) Initiative

Chandran, R., Chong, N.S.T., Doll, C.N.H., Lee, L United Nations University Policy Brief