Every day, more than three of the 30,000 remaining rhinos that survive in the wild are killed. Thirty African elephants a day also lose their lives – the worst decline for the species in 25 years. Poaching is the primary cause of the rapid declines in these iconic animals, driven by an insatiable demand for ivory, mostly from Asia.

The global illegal trade in wildlife may be bigger than you think. It's worth at least $20 billion annually and ranks alongside illicit arms, drugs and human trafficking. And it’s not just rhinos and elephants: more than 7,000 species of animals and plants have been illegally traded.

Image: Save the Rhino International

But, like narcotics, tracking the illicit trade of wildlife is complex. Professional crime syndicates with deep pockets offer large financial rewards to locals. Their cross-border networks are ruthlessly efficient, imaginative and adaptive.

Here are four ways technology can be used to protect wildlife and offer hope to species on the verge of extinction:

1. Tracking poachers

Until recently, it was not possible to have eyes and ears in all locations at once to enable a swift and targeted response to poaching.

Real-time, integrated conservation management systems are being used to dramatically reduce incidents of poaching. For instance, the Domain Awareness System deployed at the Lewa Conservancy in Northern Kenya integrates multiple inputs into one display. A real-time dashboard compiles data from radios, vehicles, aircraft, weather reports, camera traps and animal tracking devices. Machine learning augments the system, helping to predict incidents before they happen and secure the conservation area for animals and people alike. No rhino has been poached in the conservancy in the last three years.

 Close-up of Domain Awareness System data visualization dashboard monitoring assets and potential threats
Close-up of Domain Awareness System data visualization dashboard monitoring assets and potential threats
Image: Vulcan Inc

2. Investigating crime rings

Wildlife crime is frequently managed by professional global criminal networks, who operate increasingly online. A new tool, the Enforcement Gaps Interface, mines online marketplaces for transactions of wildlife to pick up illicit goods and map transit routes.

In an alternative approach, the GDELT project uses geospatial tools and big data analysis to track wildlife crime news, automatically translating information into 65 languages to improve real-time awareness, identify influencers and highlight transport corridors.

3. Monitoring wildlife

Animals roam over large areas in the search for food and water. Tracking wildlife in danger of poaching was, until recently, time-intensive and costly. Today, animals can be collared with GPS trackers or have their movements monitored using satellites or drones – although the latter are still too noisy to be effective.

Virtual fences are being used to send a shock or auditory signal to an animal if it roams too close to a human settlement. They have been particularly effective at containing wildlife within protected areas where real fences don’t exist.

4. Identifying illegal contraband

Today, authorities use paper permits to identify whether a product is being legally traded. These are easy to forge. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has developed an e-permitting toolkit and is now exploring blockchain to track each transaction in a global database to reduce forgery.

Other technologies are helping to identify illegal contraband and impound it on the spot. For instance, nano-paint is too small for the eye to see but can be picked up by lasers. When sprayed onto certified goods, customs can rapidly cross-check e-permits. Alternatively, customs officials can now quickly and cheaply sequence the DNA of a product and determine the species and its legality quickly and with precision by matching DNA to global databases. Such DNA samples will increasingly be used as evidence in court.

Furthermore, facial recognition biomarkers like LemurFaceID can tell species apart while 3D lasers have been developed to differentiate between species of timber. The University of Technology Sydney is pioneering a “portable electronic nose” which uses chemical odour profiling to identify illegal wildlife on the spot, avoiding lengthy lab analysis.

In conclusion, these technologies show great promise, but many applications have only been tested in small-scale pilots. The challenge now will be scaling their use and creating protocols governing how the data they generate is shared.

Real-time maps of a rhino’s whereabouts could be used to protect them or – in the wrong hands – facilitate precision poaching.

The issue of wildlife trafficking will be introduced to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting agenda for the first time in 2018. The session, Hope for Elephants, will be livestreamed on this website at 13:30 GMT on 25 January, and available to watch again shortly after.