Chimp facial recognition technology to target wildlife traffickers

Project will alert authorities to social media posts illegally selling great apes

Facial recognition software is under development in the US to help identify illegally trafficked apes sold via social media. The National  
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A new facial recognition technology for chimpanzees is being developed by conservationists in an effort to win the global war on illegal wildlife trafficking.

ChimpFace, currently under trial by US tech company Conservation X-Labs, automatically identifies photos of chimpanzees posted online.

Images spotted by the complex algorithm are passed on to a team of conservation experts for detailed review.

Any suspicious activity is then flagged to relevant authorities, with action taken on a case by case basis.

“The programme is starting with chimpanzees but will eventually be expanded to include additional species,” said Alexandra Russo, a conservationist who launched the ChimpFace project in partnership with Conservation X-Labs.

“Buyers and sellers use social media to trade live exotic animals, including thousands of chimpanzees and other great apes.

“While significant resources have been spent manually searching the web to source evidence of these crimes, the vastness of the internet makes it inefficient and prone to error.

“ChimpFace will automate the currently manual search process, saving a tremendous amount of time and money.”

The ChimpFace algorithm is similar to that used by security services around the world to identify known criminals and terrorists via CCTV.

It works by scanning the internet for any publicly available images or videos of chimpanzees and flagging the results to a team of conservationists.

If a post is deemed to be “linked to traffic-related activities”, experts then work with law enforcement officials and social media companies to determine the appropriate course of action.

It is hoped the hi-tech tool will turn the internet into a "no-go zone" for traffickers operating in all parts of the world, including the UAE.

“Eventually we would like to build the algorithm so it can achieve individual chimpanzee identification,” said Ms Russo, who is seeking funding to expand the project.

“This will allow us to track the movements of a specific animal across the online trade chain.”

According to a United Nations World Wildlife Crime report in 2016, more than 6,000 great apes have been trafficked from the wild since 2005.

Many were just babies stolen from their mothers, with an estimated 30,000 adults – often sold as bushmeat - killed in capture related activities.

Dubai has long been identified as one of the more common destinations used in illegal trafficking.

Owning exotic pets in the Gulf region remains popular, with some individuals known to keep private collections of large mammals, including lions.

"Although the network is not perfect, we are achieving pretty good validation accuracies to distinguish between chimpanzee faces, human faces and other objects," said Dr Colin McCormick, senior technical advisor at Conservation X Labs.

“The algorithm is clearly learning, and as we add more imagery to the network it will continue to improve.”

During a six-week period in 2017, researchers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recorded 11,772 instances of endangered and threatened wildlife specimens being offered for sale via various channels.

They discovered 5,381 posts on 106 online marketplaces and four social media platforms, with the collective haul worth in the region of $4m (Dh14.5m).

Research of online ads in France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom found a total of 152 primates being sold, including live orangutans, lemurs, tamarins, marmosets and gibbons.

“Our research into online wildlife trade has found tens of thousands of endangered and threatened live animals and their body parts are being trafficked over e-commerce and social media platforms, including numerous species of apes and monkeys,” said Tania McCrea-Steele, international project manager of wildlife crime at the IFAW.

“We need these technology tools if we are to make the internet a no-go zone for wildlife traffickers.”

“Matches found through ChimpFace’s facial recognition software could be used as supporting evidence in criminal investigations,” said Pauline Verheij, senior program manager of wildlife crime at IFAW.

“However, ChimpFace will not help to stop the poaching of chimps in the wild.

“For that to stop, we need better enforcement at the source, and in transit and destination countries.”