C.S.I. Wildlife – How criminology techniques are helping to fight wildlife crime in Uganda
By Anne-Marie Weeden, Uganda Conservation Foundation
On the 1st January 2013, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers in Queen Elizabeth National Park were getting ready to head out on patrol. Before setting out, a ranger in each patrol turned on a GPS-enabled camera and took a picture of his own hand making the universal “thumbs up” sign. This was no “ranger selfie”, but the start of a game-changing conservation project called WILD LEO. Before the year was out, WILD LEO would help UWA prosecutors drive up poaching conviction rates through the Courts to an unprecedented 97%.
The brainchild of Dr. Andrew Lemieux – an American criminologist based in the Netherlands – the project known as Wildlife Intelligence and Leadership Development for Law Enforcement Officers (WILD LEO) is a simple solution to a complex problem. UWA ranger patrols are tasked with detecting and preventing a vast array of wildlife offences – from encroachment to poaching – often with only a few hundred men available to cover thousands of square kilometres. In a single patrol, they can encounter hundreds of examples of criminal activity – from finding snares, traps, camps, carcasses or even the poachers themselves. The teams needed a simple way to monitor these crimes, in order to provide their Commanders with the data required to develop park infrastructure and deployment strategies, and (in the case of any arrests made) to provide the local judiciary with the evidence required to ensure a successful conviction.
Dr. Lemieux spent several months researching the task – from the ground up. In addition to interviews at every level, he spent around 70 hours accompanying foot patrols through the park. His time spent side by side with the rangers gave him insights into the challenges they encounter on a daily basis. A few months later, the concept for WILD LEO emerged: a paperless system using low cost technologies and “open source” software to support UWA Law Enforcement in better utilising the data available and enabling intelligence-led policing of the parks. As organized criminal syndicates increasingly drive the illegal wildlife trade in Uganda, developing such skills within the main authority tasked with detecting and prosecuting these crimes was becoming increasingly important.
So how does WILD LEO actually work?
The system is deceptively simple – a sure factor in its subsequent success. First, rangers are trained in WILD LEO data collection using GPS-enabled cameras or smartphones. Whilst on patrol, they record images of any evidence of criminal activity – whether a freshly cut tree stump or an animal carcass. The same devices record GPS co-ordinates of the patrol location every 30 seconds – regardless of whether they are on or off – thus mapping the entire patrol route.
Back at Park Headquarters, the data is downloaded, and WILD LEO Data Analysts – rangers trained in crime spatial analysis techniques borrowed straight from the world of criminology – map the information using open-source Quantum GIS (QGIS) software. The “thumbs up” gesture is a simple trick used to visually mark the start of a patrol within the sequence of images, like a “clapperboard” when shooting film scenes. At the end of each patrol, the ranger operating the camera also takes a shot of a “thumbs down” gesture. In this way, WILD LEO Data Analysts can easily identify the patrol start and end points within the hundreds of images they process from each WILD LEO unit every month.
WILD LEO maps have become key in informing local park management plans – by looking at the temporal and spatial patterns of crimes that occur within the Protected Areas they responsible for, they can develop better strategies to combat them – from identifying a poaching ‘hot spot’ area where new or improved park infrastructure is required, to better informed ranger deployments. Additionally, when a suspect is taken to court, the UWA Prosecutor is able to prepare a visually compelling prosecution map – showing all the images and co-ordinates of the evidence pertaining to the case. Local magistrates are, for the first time, being presented with irrefutable evidence of the crime in question and, within the first six months of deployment, WILD LEO teams were achieving these unprecedented convictions rates. Peter Ewau, UWA Prosecutor, puts its success down to the simple but fundamental act of being able to provide spatially referenced evidence: “Wild Leo helps us to position the people we arrest right at the scene”. He also tells us anecdotally that many poachers, when faced with the prosecution case evidence in court, simply change their plea to guilty and admit defeat.
With such dramatic results, the senior management at UWA – convinced of the potential for WILD LEO to drive up successful prosecutions all across Uganda – requested the rapid expansion of the project to encompass all key elephant ranges within Uganda. With the support of Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF), Dr. Lemieux began the roll out of WILD LEO from its pilot site in Queen Elizabeth National Park to Murchison Falls, Kidepo Valley and Kibale National Park, as well as Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve.
To date, Dr. Lemieux and UCF have trained 65 ranger teams across four Protected Areas, equivalent to 80% of Uganda’s elephant ranges. By the time you read this, WILD LEO will include an additional 40 teams and cover 100% of Uganda’s elephant range. Conviction rates in Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Park have reached the aforementioned 97% – and new sites are reporting similar positive prosecution trends.
Whilst reliant on technology to collect the data at the first stage of the process, WILD LEO is in essence all about building the investigation and prosecution capabilities within UWA, rather than any high-tech gadgetry. The insights and techniques taught ensure Law Enforcement Rangers and Prosecutors develop the skills they need to tackle wildlife crime in Uganda. Indeed, UCF and Dr Lemieux have also fundraised for the WILD LEO Ranger Education Fund – which has to date supported three scholarships for UWA’s rangers to further their legal and crime analysis skills. Alidria Andeku Bazil and Komugasho Jadress attended the VU University Amsterdam Summer School in July 2015, gaining certification in a Masters/PhD level course in Spatial Crime Analysis. Obwona Julius, Law Enforcement Warden for Murchison Falls Conservation Area, is currently studying for a Law Diploma. It is these dedicated young men and women that will lead Uganda’s battle against wildlife crime over the coming years.
As the competition for natural resources intensifies, the role of a wildlife ranger in Uganda is evolving to incorporate many hats. It is not enough for them to be wildlife experts, monitoring the health and status of their wildlife populations, observing habitat changes and assisting the communities around the parks. Whilst this is crucial in its own right, they also need to become wildlife detectives, crime scene investigators, forensic experts, intelligence operatives, lobbyists for legislative reform and whip-smart prosecutors. The battle to combat the illegal wildlife trade in Uganda may have many faces, but when it comes to investigation and prosecution, WILD LEO is playing a significant role in helping UWA fight the good fight. And for that, we all owe Dr. Lemieux a very big ‘thumbs up’ indeed.