Elevating wildlife conservation: How WWF and air transport are working to combat wildlife trafficking

Crawford Allan by Crawford Allan | Feb 2, 2024

Crawford Allan, Senior Director of Wildlife at World Wildlife Fund-US, discusses key collaborative efforts between the World Wildlife Fund and Airports Council International in the battle to safeguard our planet’s most precious wildlife from the illegal wildlife trade.

Wildlife trafficking is a lucrative criminal enterprise that ranks among the top illegal activities globally, following drugs, arms, and human trafficking. It poses a severe threat to endangered species, disrupts ecosystems, and fuels organized crime.  Recognizing the pivotal role of air transport, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Airports Council International (ACI) have collaborated for nearly a decade to combat this illicit trade.  In the battle against wildlife trafficking, WWF collaborates with ACI and other leading air transport partners on a multifaceted approach that focuses on prevention, collaboration, and education.  Together, we have built out a set of global programs to safeguard our planet’s most precious wildlife.

Awareness raising and behavior change to counter wildlife trafficking

Public awareness and behavior change are vital in combatting wildlife trafficking.  WWF collaborates with airports and airlines to launch campaigns, effectively informing travellers and staff about this crisis and its consequences.  By doing so, we aim to tap into travellers’ motivations and emphasize the shared responsibility we all have in preventing wildlife trafficking and discouraging potential traffickers.

WWF has been conducting traveller outreach for years in China and Southeast Asia by working with airlines and airports, using in-flight materials, flight attendant announcements, visuals, and videos.  Future campaigns will further target travellers in Asia and beyond to reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products.

WWF Saving Threatened Wildlife campaign visual targeting air passengers traveling through airports in Vietnam
WWF Saving Threatened Wildlife campaign visual displayed at the Buon Ma Thuot Airport in Vietnam

Informing pet owners

Online users might be tempted to buy exotic pets after seeing a cute photo or video on social media. The internet connects buyers and sellers, while air transport facilitates global shipment.  WWF’s Exotic Pet Suitability Guide walks through what people should consider before getting a pet, including legality and how the animal was sourced, to promote responsible ownership.

Despite legal and sustainable pet trade, evidence shows unsustainable and illegal sourcing of animals from the wild for pets poses a threat globally to wildlife.  The guide helps owners make informed decisions about pet ownership for themselves, their community, and the environment.

We encourage pet owners to be aware of regulations around traveling with and shipping certain animals.  The air transport sector plays a key role in ensuring protected wildlife are not being transported for the pet trade, but public cooperation is also crucial to curb the demand and to keep these animals out of the supply chain.

WWF Exotic Pet Suitability Guide Interface © WWF-US

Technology and innovation

WWF embraces technological solutions to bolster airport security measures. This includes the use of advanced screening technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning as well as enhanced technology for sniffer dogs, to detect hidden wildlife products in cargo shipments and passenger luggage.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Imagine a world where our airports not only safeguard us from immediate safety threats but also actively combat the illegal wildlife trade without missing a beat in aviation security. That’s the vision being brought to life by our partners, including the South African and US government, International Air Transport Association (IATA), TRAFFIC and ACI.  At the heart of this innovation lies a sophisticated machine learning algorithm. In real time, the algorithm identifies baggage carrying illegal wildlife using the same x-ray images generated for aviation security screening.  While prioritizing passenger safety is paramount, this side-by-side detection unlocks the full potential of x-ray technology. 

Through these efforts, we are showing that x-ray images can reveal multiple threats simultaneously.  This means airports can now broaden their approach to threat detection. With this tool, law enforcement, wildlife authorities, and customs not only become more efficient, but more strategic.  Through more targeted bag searches, a deeper understanding of wildlife smugglers’ tactics, and the ability to intercept before departure, the technology presents a leap forward in how we approach wildlife protection.

Sniffer dog technology

As innovative detection technologies make air trafficking less appealing to criminals, they may turn to alternative transport modes.

Port authorities rely on “sniffer” dogs to help screen cargo for illegal wildlife products. We are working with our partners to refine a promising air sampling technology that would make sniffer dog detection more expedient option.

© Robin Sawyer/WWF-US

This low-cost technology is made from locally available materials, such as a battery-powered vacuum, for example. Using the vacuum device, air is suctioned out of a shipping container and passed through a filter which traps the scent particles. These filters are then presented to the dogs who can detect whether illegal wildlife is present, all without ever opening the container. This technology drastically increases the number of containers that can be examined and therefore increases the likelihood of detecting illegal products and disrupting wildlife traffickers from utilizing other ports of entry.

Training and capacity building

Lu Gao and Abby Hehmeyer from WWF participate in ACI Africa’s Environment & Sustainability Committee to discuss counter wildlife trafficking approaches. © ACI Africa

Elevating awareness about wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector is critical.  Through the USAID ROUTES Partnership (2015-2022), WWF, TRAFFIC, and ACI created targeted resources exclusively for airport members, including the Combatting Wildlife Trafficking Handbook, e-learning modules and informational videos.  WWF continues to work with industry partners to promote, tailor, and distribute these trainings.  In addition, we continue to support ACI Wildlife Trafficking Prevention Taskforce, established through ROUTES, which convenes regularly to address emerging threats.  This dynamic platform empowers airports by discussing latest trends and how to proactively address these.

Facilitating cross-sector partnerships

Our impact is only made possible by forging impactful partnerships across sectors, including one with ACI Africa.  Through a recent MoU, WWF and ACI Africa have committed to supporting efforts to combat wildlife trafficking in critical hotspots across Africa. This strategic alliance leverages the strengths of both organizations to help implement robust measures including deploying cutting-edge technologies and fostering coordination among airport stakeholders and law enforcement.  Together, WWF and ACI Africa showcase the power of cross-sector collaborations in safeguarding wildlife and preserving biodiversity.

We also believe that addressing wildlife trafficking requires a broader perspective beyond the lens of conservation.  This is why WWF actively participates in cross-sectoral working groups, so that wildlife trafficking is framed within the larger puzzle of combating organized crime.  Through our collaborations with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) AIRCOP program and United for Wildlife, we explore the interconnectedness of wildlife trafficking with drug trafficking and financial crimes, creating a holistic approach where insights from one battle can inform the strategies of others. Wildlife trafficking cannot be tackled in isolation, but as an integral part of a comprehensive effort to dismantle criminal networks.

Soaring towards a safer future for wildlife

  • ACI members and partners play a vital role in ensuring a safer and more sustainable future for wildlife:  Maximize your influence as an ACI member by becoming a part of ACI World’s Wildlife Trafficking Prevention Taskforce. 
  • Empower your staff with the knowledge they need by delving into the extensive training materials that have been designed for their success. 
  • Connect with WWF to explore collaborative approaches to developing outreach and awareness campaigns specifically for your target segment. 
  • Stay at the forefront of technology, emerging trends and innovations by engaging with our port detection programs. 

By working together, we can create a network of vigilant and informed passengers, airlines, and airports that serve as powerful deterrents to traffickers. As we continue to strengthen these partnerships, we move one step closer to a world where our skies are free from the shadow of wildlife trafficking, preserving the beauty and diversity of our planet for generations to come.

Main article image: © WWF-Sweden / Ola Jennersten

Crawford Allan

Crawford Allan

Senior Director, Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund - US
Crawford leads wildlife conservation programs related to trade, trafficking, and sustainability, with 30 years of experience. He oversees crime, trade, and governance-related programs and projects for WWF US in Washington, DC. Crawford has led numerous large-scale projects combating wildlife trafficking as a prior head of TRAFFIC’s global work combating wildlife crime for 15 years. The co-creator and oversight role of the USAID ROUTES Partnership, a multimillion-dollar program targeting supply chain impacts on the international transport sector, ending in 2022. He helps to develop technology solutions to detect wildlife crime, including anti-trafficking systems for aviation. From 2013-2017, he served on the Federal Advisory Council of the U.S. Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
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