Archive file# o082000a
11th March 1998
in the illegal
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
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,
Tim Dockerty is a
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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