Mapping the Illegal Wildlife Trade

February 17, 2012

A new collaboration between WCS and Children's Hospital Boston uses media reports to help track wildlife trade and reduce its associated disease risks.

Whether its engraved sperm whale teeth, rare tropical birds, tiger skins and bones, or bushmeat from endangered primates, the items bought and sold on the illegal wildlife trade pose an enormous threat to our planet’s health.

To help improve monitoring of the illegal trade and its potential disease risks to people and animals, WCS and Children's Hospital Boston have unveiled a new digital tool. The
 HealthMap Wildlife Trade Map marks the first effort to use global media to comprehensively track the illegal wildlife trade. Though experts believe its value is second only to the illegal trade in drugs and arms, the wildlife trade is largely unmonitored by official channels for law enforcement.

Through the global wildlife trade, threatened and endangered animals are collected from wild habitats and sold live as pets, and for food or research. Their parts are also sold to be made into traditional Asian medicines, luxury goods, or trophies.

Until now, the main data used for estimating the scale and scope of the trade were official records of interceptions through CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) enforcement and official import-export records, as well as records of confiscations mainly from official government agencies.

HealthMap Wildife Trade Map makes it possible to aggregate the many sources of official data with additional information from multiple publicly available sources, including newspapers and the internet.

“Media reports and other non-government sources can provide unprecedented insight into global wildlife trade and associated disease risks by helping us visualize underground networks which have continued to elude the traditional monitoring mechanisms,” said Dr. John Brownstein of Children’s Hospital Boston, who is leading the project.

Dr. Damien Joly of WCS said: “The wildlife trade is a mechanism for diseases that affect humans to move around the world, and has been implicated in the emergence of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza and SARS. This new tool will help us track and better understand the trade and disease risks that it poses.”

HealthMap has been combining official data with informal real-time media stories and reports from the public since 2006. Mapping these diverse sources of information has helped the global health community, travelers, and the world at large track outbreaks of infectious diseases as they occur. Applying these tools to map the wildlife trade is a novel application of this technology.

To learn more, read the press release.

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