archived 08-20-00
Archive file# o082000a

11th March 1998

The turnover in the illegal animal trade is greater than the money made from illegal arms trading.

Every year approximately 3 billion changes hands in the illegal trade of animals, plants and wildlife. Twenty-five years ago, nearly every country signed a convention to control the animal trade. It is still incredibly difficult to enforce.

The problem is that at present there is no system in place to track the animals and animal products exported and imported round the world. Even when illegal goods are found, it is difficult for a customs officer's untrained eye to identify what animal the product comes from. One of the most difficult areas for customs officers to monitor is snake skin products. There are thousands of different species. Each species has its own level of protection in international trade - depending on how endangered it is - so quick, easy identification is the key to enforcing trade restriction. Stuart Chapman, from the World Wild fund for Nature is one of the team trying to find new ways to monitor the traffic.

At airports like Heathrow, customs officers cannot identify the origin of every animal skin. For some imports you need a permit, even for a souvenir you bought in a tourist shop. It isn't possible to have an animal expert at every airport, so customs officers send any suspect samples to a zoo or museum for identification. If customs pick up a reptile sample at Heathrow, it may go to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. To identify the animal source a resident reptile expert has to count the number of scales on the product and cross check the result with reference material. The process can take as long as three weeks. But help is at hand, from Nemesis.

Tim Dockerty is a computer specialist and inventor, from Norfolk. His creation is Nemesis, an expert machine that detects the species of snake a product is made from and whether or not it is endangered. It is designed to identify the underlying species used in manufacture. The customs officer puts the sample under a high quality camera, cuts out ambient light and illuminates it from the side. The computer is connected to the camera. The customs officer can select the item type, e.g. a handbag, from the computer screen and the computer picks up the image from the camera as a live video shot. You can zoom in and out of the image to check that the skin is in the right place.

Tim's device works by using artificial intelligence systems, which can be taught to recognise and identify different skins and the system improves with time and experience according to what they see. The more samples of skins they see, they better they function.

Once the system picks up an image, it identifies it and its details appear on the screen. If a red bar also appears it means that the species is controlled. At the moment, Nemesis only recognizes the fifteen most traded snake skins. Eventually, Tim hopes that he can adapt Nemesis to identify all endangered animals. If it could identify furs as well as reptile skins, Nemesis could help save many threatened species from extinction.


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