TEDx talk: Can criminal intelligence save the pangolin from extinction?

The Wildlife Justice Commission’s Director of Intelligence, Sarah Stoner, recently participated in TEDxVitosha in Bulgaria. Drawing on her years of experience as an intelligence analyst, Sarah spoke about the role of intelligence analysis in the fight against wildlife trafficking, using the trafficking of pangolins as an example of how organised crime is impacting our environment.

Hosted in the city of Sofia, Sarah delivered her talk as part of TED’s global COUNTDOWN initiative, an attempt to champion and accelerate solutions for a more sustainable future.

Organised wildlife crime is a key driver of biodiversity loss. “Wildlife crime and wildlife trafficking can affect any species,” Sarah told the TEDx audience; “Today I am talking about pangolins; next year it could be pandas or penguins, or a species that may affect you directly … these crimes do impact our natural environment.”

Watch Sarah Stoner’s TEDx talk:

Pangolin scales as a criminal commodity

In July of this year, 196 sacks of pangolin scales were seized by Nigerian Customs officials, acting on intelligence from the Wildlife Justice Commission. This shipment contained seven tonnes of scales – an estimated 15,000 pangolins – ready to be smuggled to Asia.

“This shipment was one of many large-scale shipments linked to Nigeria over the past ten years,” said Sarah. “Almost 200,000 tonnes of pangolin scales have been seized from similar shipments, of which the scales have been removed from almost 800,000 African pangolins that have been illegally taken from the wild to feed a growing demand in China.” This demand is now being fuelled and met by organised crime which explains why we are seeing such vast numbers. The involvement of organised crime in facilitating this illegal trade now affects many species globally. Criminal syndicates enable wildlife crime like pangolin scale trafficking to occur on an industrial scale. From Bulgarian sturgeon to African elephants, Sarah expressed personal horror at the rate at which animals are being removed from the wild, often in highly distressing ways.

“Wildlife is often treated as a commodity by criminal syndicates, but unlike other illegal commodities – such as drugs – wildlife cannot be replaced; once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Sarah warned.

Supply chain of pangolin scales

The role of intelligence analysis

Criminal intelligence analysis can have a profound effect on crime levels and is an incredible force multiplier where resources are low, and the problem is vast, as wildlife trafficking often is. It can also be transferrable for other species suffering a similar experience to the pangolin; the same methods we use to protect pangolins can be used to protect other vulnerable species.

“Intelligence analysis … is essential for understanding the functioning of organised criminal networks – such as those involved in pangolin smuggling – and to identify the key individuals to focus on, in order to bring down a criminal network. We’re looking for patterns and commonalities in crime data,” Sarah explained.

“One such technique we use is the 5WH (who, what, where, when, how, and the why), a really basic but effective way to bring together all the different components of what is often a very complex problem.”

What can YOU do to help?

At the end of her TEDx talk, Sarah addressed the audience – and all of us who care for wildlife – directly: “For those of you who wish to know how to help, the best advice I can give is to stay informed, to understand wildlife crime in your own country and demand an adequate response from your government. Our combined voices and approaches … can help put more pressure on organised crime and not allow organised crime to put further pressure on vulnerable species in the wild.”

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Sarah spoke alongside guests from many different walks of life. Such an array of speakers is an important reminder that when it comes to addressing environmental challenges, all of us have a part to play. The Wildlife Justice Commission would like to thank TEDxVitosha for inviting Sarah to speak, and a big thank you to Sarah for delivering such an inspiring and compelling talk about our work.