Lizard in your luggage? We use artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trafficking

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Blue-tongued lizards and sulphur-crested cockatoos are among the native animals frequently smuggled overseas.

While the number of live animals seized by the Australian government has tripled since 2017, the scale of the problem eludes us as authorities often do not know where and how wildlife is trafficked. Now we can add new technology to Australia’s arsenal against this cruel and inhumane industry.

Our research, published today, shows the potential of new technologies to detect illegal wildlife in luggage or mail. This technology uses artificial intelligence to recognize the shapes of animals when they are scanned at international front lines such as airports and mail centers.

Exotic species are also smuggled in of the country, such as snakes, turtles and fish. It could disrupt Australia’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industries by introducing pests and diseases, and could also threaten fragile native ecosystems.

Shingleback lizards are one of Australia’s most trafficked animals. Photo: Shutterstock.

An animal welfare issue

Wildlife trafficking is motivated by several factors, including for medical purposes, animals with ornamental value or for the illegal pet trade.

This can have fatal consequences, as it usually involves transporting individual animals through narrow or cramped environments. This often results in animals becoming stressed, dehydrated and dying.

Some people have even tried to use chip packets to smuggle Australian wildlife.

Traffickers often transport several individuals at once, hoping that only one animal will survive.

We don’t know exactly which animals are trafficked, how they are trafficked, or even when it happens. But examples of cases seized in Australia suggest that traffickers have a strong appreciation for Australian reptiles and birds.

For example, shingleback lizards, a type of blue-tongued lizard, are considered one of Australia’s most trafficked species.

Just another Sulphur-crested Cockatoo for you? These Australian birds are exotic in the international pet trade and have fallen victim to illegal wildlife trafficking. Photo: Dr. Vanessa Pirotta.

Besides being cruel and inhumane, wildlife trafficking can also facilitate the introduction of alien species into new environments.

This leads to significant biosecurity risks. For example, zoonosis (diseases passing from a non-human animal to a human) involves people handling stressed wild animals. Alien species can also disrupt natural ecosystems, as we have seen with the damage caused by cane toads in northern Australia.

Unregulated wildlife entering the country can also harbor new diseases or destructive parasites. This could harm agricultural industries and potentially increase the prices of our fruits and vegetables.

Creating a trafficking image library

Our new research documents a variety of wildlife species, which have been digitized using state-of-the-art technology to help create computer algorithms using ‘real-time tomography’.

Real-time tomography is an imaging technique that uses a series of x-rays to scan an object (like a lizard). It then produces a three-dimensional image of the animal which, in turn, is used to develop algorithms. For example, mail and luggage can be scanned at the airport and, if wildlife is confined, the algorithms will alert operators to their presence.

Our study scanned known species of trafficked Australian animals to create a reference library of images. A total of 294 scans of 13 species of lizards, birds and fish were used to develop initial wildlife algorithms, with a detection rate of 82% and a false alarm rate of just 1.6%.

Wildlife algorithm successfully detecting a shingle lizard. This is a screenshot of the UI alerting the operator of a detected Pebble Lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) via the green bounding box that tagged it as a lizard. Image: Pirotta et al. 2022

This research is the first to document the use of 3D CT safety scanning technology for wildlife protection in peer-reviewed scientific literature. It is also the first to report results for the detection of reptiles, birds and fish in such scans.

The detection tool is designed to complement the existing detection measures of Australian Border Force, Biosecurity Officers and detection dogs, which remain essential in our fight against wildlife crime.

If not, how can we stop wildlife trafficking?

Current tools for detecting and restricting wildlife trafficking rely primarily on human detection methods.

This includes cybercrime investigations or Australian Border Force and Biosecurity officers manually searching bags. Biosecurity detector dogs patrolling airports are also helpful, as are smartphone reporting apps such as the Wildlife Witness app.

Efforts to dismantle illegal trade networks at the source are also crucial. It is about understanding and reducing consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products, providing alternative livelihoods for potential poachers, and strengthening governance and oversight.

Seized animals can be used as evidence to identify traffickers, with previous cases resulting in legal action by environmental investigators. For example, a former rugby league player was jailed for four years after he was caught smuggling a variety of animals in and out of Australia.

continue the fight

All of these measures help to combat wildlife trafficking, but there is no single solution for predicting when and where events are likely to take place.

Wildlife traffickers can frequently adapt their behaviors to avoid detection. Therefore, innovative and adaptive solutions, such as our new technology, are essential to support existing detection techniques.

Any effort to eradicate this terrible activity is a step in the right direction, and the potential of 3D detection allows us to adapt and evolve with how traffickers can change their behaviors.


We would like to thank Dr Phoebe Meagher of the Taronga Conservation Society Australia for her contribution to this research and this article.

The conversation

Vanessa Pirotta, postdoctoral researcher and wildlife scientist, Macquarie University and Justine O’Brien, Head of Conservation Science, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, University of Sydney, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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