Monday 24 October 2016

Wildlife 'WikiLeaks' Targets Africa Poaching Elite

Dar es Salaam

Poachers slaughtering Africa's elephants and rhinos with impunity are often shielded from police by powerful connections, but a group of conservationists has turned to the anonymity of tip-offs to try to stem the killing.

The founders of WildLeaks -- a sort of WikiLeaks for the environment -- say it is the first secure, online whistle-blowing platform dedicated to wildlife and forest crime.

While wildlife rangers face gun battles in national parks with poachers carrying out the slaughter, the online project hopes to target the top-end traffickers who cream off millions of dollars in profit.

"We got, for example, a very interesting leak on a very powerful individual in Kenya, linked to the government, who is behind the ivory trade," said founder Andrea Crosta, a former security consultant and longtime conservationist.

This kind of person "will never be taken out from within. They're too powerful. You need help from outside. So right now, we're trying to gather more evidence," he said in rapid-fire, Italian-accented English.

Poaching has risen sharply across Africa in recent years fuelled by rising demand in Asia for ivory and rhino horn, coveted as a traditional medicine and a status symbol.

Interviewed in the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Tanzania's main city Dar es Salaam, Crosta is fervent in his belief the online platform can be part of the war against poaching.

Launched in February, WildLeaks received its first tip within 24 hours. Since then the project has gotten over 45 tips and leaks, with at least 28 deemed to be useful.

The information involved a range of topics from around the world including tiger poaching in Sumatra, illegal logging in eastern Russia and Mexico, and the smuggling of wildlife products into the United States.

WildLeaks passed on some tips to law enforcement agencies, while others were shared with trusted conservation organisations that specialise in the area.

Some were also investigated in house. Two WildLeaks probes have already been launched, with another two set to begin in September. WildLeaks uses encryption and anonymity software to allow those with information to send it safely to those who can do something about it.

It is a new way to tackle a long-standing problem, and other conservationists have offered a cautious welcome.

"It does appear to be a new approach within the wildlife crime sector," said Richard Thomas from TRAFFIC, the world's leading wildlife trade monitoring network.

"It could prove its worth over time, if useful information is received and directed towards appropriate professional enforcement agencies for follow-up action.

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