Scientists from the Kumaon University in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and the University of Sydney, state that investments in citizen reporting tools could provide crucial data on the status of species and trade of their commercial products.
In a paper titled ‘Can citizen reporting apps plug the data gap in the Himalayan wildlife trade?’ in the journal Trees, Forests and People, authors say that Citizen apps that help residents collect data, usually with smartphones, could help plug information gaps and track illegal wildlife trade in the biodiversity-rich Himalayas, as reported by Mongabay-India. Citizen reporting tools could reduce biodiversity loss in the Himalayas by reducing illegal and destructive trade.
The abstract of the report highlights that the Himalayan region is particularly susceptible to biodiversity loss because it is ecologically rich, highly susceptible to climate change and natural hazards, and its governance is fragmented across multiple inter- and intra-national boundaries.
Citizen reporting tools might provide an impetus for improving information-based management of wildlife trade that is lacking in the current regional political structure. Investment in citizen reporting tools could improve the availability of data on the status of existing species’ populations and trade of their commercial product.
We outline how this recently-emerged tool is being used in the region and describe the challenges for and potential contribution of a citizen reporting app for combating illegal wildlife trade in the Himalayan region.
The ecologically-rich Himalayas are “particularly susceptible to biodiversity loss” because of their vulnerability to climate change and natural hazards and a fragmented system of governance across multiple boundaries within and outside the countries that form part of the mountain chain, the report says.
The researchers state that citizen reporting tools could help share information on wildlife and improve management of wildlife trade, noting that, “Investment in citizen reporting tools could improve the availability of data on the status of existing species’ populations and trade of their commercial product.”
As Mongabay-India reports, citizen scientists use the ubiquitous smartphone to record visual, audio, and geographical information precisely. While citizens’ efforts to gather data are voluntary and unpaid, they often record the unusual, and professional researchers oversee and analyze the data.
This arrangement enables researchers to collect large volumes of data at a low cost while also engaging the public in science-related issues. Several such citizen apps exist, some working in tandem with scientific institutions.
For example, the Plantix app, which enables farmers to identify crop diseases, enlisted the help of Indian agronomists to build its initial image database and train the app’s deep neural network. Meanwhile, the iNaturalist app’s data goes into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. Other popular dedicated apps include iSpot, CitSci, Cybertracker and eBird, but postings to social media apps can also be mined via their metadata. eBird became the world’s largest citizen science community, in which bird migrations are traced across continents. The iBats app monitors bat calls, while Leafsnap tracks leaves of trees.
The study adds that effective use of local knowledge has been an important part of the growth of illegal wildlife trade and must also be a part of combatting it. People who live in close association with ecosystem services have a greater knowledge of species’ distribution and movement patterns, and of the social constructs that permit illegal activity.
Studies have predicted that Himalayan Buddhism and other religious institutions have the potential to conserve 80% of the global range of snow leopards. Entire local communities might benefit in the short term from unsustainable wildlife trade, while in others the trade benefits only a few. Data collection methods may therefore need to be adaptable to community constraints.
India is making efforts to curb wildlife crime, Mongabay-India points out. In March 2021, the Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and TRAFFIC conducted training sessions for wildlife enforcement agency officials to stop wildlife trafficking across the Himalayas.
The biodiversity-rich Himalayas account for nearly half (50%) of India’s flowering plants and birds; and almost two-thirds (65%) of the mammalian species; more than a third of the country’s reptiles (35%) and amphibians (36%) and 17% fishes. The skin, bones, and body parts of the snow leopard and common leopard; gall bladder of the Himalayan brown bear and Asiatic black bear; musk pods of various species of musk deer, the fur of wolves and leopards; as well as various pheasants such as the Western tragopan and the Himalayan monal are some of the commonly illegally trafficked items from the Himalayas.