Combating illegal wildlife trade in the digital age

A photo comparison of a poaching victim matriach and her herd with rangers in Amboseli national park lined up holding tusks of elephants killed through poaching. Photo courtesy of Kenya Wildlife Servive Facebook page


By Maryanne Maina

Protecting and conserving wildlife in the 21st century has been an uphill task for conservationists due to rising demand in the wildlife trade estimated to be worth billions of dollars, and lack of willpower from governments which has seen many species teetering on the brink of extinction. This has fueled the poaching crisis and  according to World Wildlife Fund, over 30 000 elephants are killed yearly for their tusks while the number of rhinos poached in south Africa alone has increased by 9000% since 2007. It’s even sadder that at the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya the last surviving male northern white rhino, Sudan, has to be kept under 24 hour surveillance. With this increased pressure on the world’s wildlife it feels like we are fighting a losing battle but conservationists are fighting back in this digital age. This post highlights the various ways in which conservationists and governments are using digital technology to combat this trade.

Social networks

    Through the power of social networks, conservationists and other individuals like me interested in fighting poaching are coming together to form social movements that help in raising awareness about illegal wildlife trade, campaign against poaching, petition governments for increased action against poaching, as well as keep each other informed about wildlife issues. Social networks theory founded by Emile Durkheim and Ferdinand Tonnies looks how and why people, or organisations interact within their networks. Through similar interests in wildlife conservation people from all over the world are forming or becoming part of social movements geared towards promotion of the protection and conservation of wildlife. Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are enabling  people to form movements that advocate for an end to illegal wildlife trade as well as conservation of the remaining wildlife.

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People participating in the Global Match for Elephants and Rhinos in 2014.


The Global Match for Elephants and Rhinos is an online community which organises matches globally with the aim of demanding an end to the increasing trade in ivory and rhino. The matches are organised in various countries and people are communicated to through social media.  Hands Off Our elephants an online community led by Dr.Paula Kahumbu brings thousands of people from across the world together with the intention of ensuring the wildlife of Africa are conserved for generations. This movement has organised campaigns to put an end to poaching, put an end to ivory trafficking, and terminate demand for the ivory. Changes in wildlife laws in various countries have only been made possible through the force of these movements, with successes noted in arrests and longer prison terms for poachers, and dealers in the wildlife trade. Kenyans for Wildlife,  and Tanzanians for Wildlife are among many other online social movements fighting against illegal trade in wildlife.


     Through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter wildlife activists like Dr.Kahumbu are spreading awareness about the wildlife trade which spurs poaching. They have online platforms to demand for accountability and action from their governments and use their huge followings to advocate for increased action by the Kenyan government to do more to curb the poaching crisis in the country. They inform their followers of any poaching related activity where mainstream media fails or where the government would otherwise keep these hidden.

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Conservationists have also noticed they cannot win the war against poaching without the active participation of individuals and groups. They are using the power of the Internet to reach out to the world to get people to get actively involved in bringing an end to illegal wildlife trade. David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has taken advantage of its online platform to get people actively involved in its rehabilitation project of orphan elephants with the mission of raising funds, and spreading awareness. Through its website donors who foster elephants are kept abreast of their foster elephants’ activities, growth and eventual reintegration into the wild. Through Facebook the organisation gives its followers regular updates on its orphans and allows them to participate in discussions about the future of elephants. This is replicated in many online platforms and by many conservation groups like World Wildlife Fund, African Wildlife Foundation, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and Save the Rhino which have social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, as well as blogs.

Use of drones, cybertrackers, and GPS collars.


It is not only through the the internet where the war against illegal wildlife trade is being fought. Advancements in digital technology are also helping fight against the poaching crisis which is fueling the illegal wildlife trade. Drones are being researched and tested, and used by various governments and wildlife conservation groups with the aim of tracking and monitoring wildlife activity, and detect poachers even at night thereby preventing poaching activities. They provide a bird’s eye view and can go where anti-poaching teams may not have the manpower to go to.  Although the Kenyan government denied Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2014 permission to use drones for conservation citing security, countries like Nepal have shown that drones do have the potential to combat poaching with the country reporting increased numbers in their rhino population.


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Monitoring wildlife via a cyber tracker.


    Cyber tracking software installed in mobile phones is now  allowing conservationists to monitor and track wildlife and in Africa is being used to monitor for example gorillas in the Congo which have been under constant threat of the illegal wildlife trade. Through mobile apps like WildScan one can track wildlife and report trafficking incidents to authorities. A Kenyan made mobile application, MiSavannah allows a person to track wildlife activity while at the same delaying the information to prevent the poachers from using live feed to find the animals. The funds raised from its sales go into conservation efforts. GPS collars attached to the animals along with batteries and mobile phones send data to servers providing data of location of the animals every hour allowing anti-poaching patrols to be sent to the right area which means lesser time being spent searching for the poachers.

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A lioness  with a GPS collar around her neck resting under a tree.

The digital age has provided us with the tools we need to fight for the protection of our wildlife and  although we still have a long way to go, we can say that we are not where we were decades ago.