Lintang Sutawika explains a prototype AI-powered application to help stop pangolin trafficking called Pang The Pangolin at @america in Jakarta on Tuesday. (JG Photo/Tara Marchelin)

How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Stop Pangolin Trafficking


FEBRUARY 19, 2020

Jakarta. Pangolins in Indonesia are at risk of extinction as a result of illicit trade that involves thousands of endangered animals trafficked each year. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, a total of 26,000 pangolins have been illegally traded from the country to Hong Kong, Vietnam and China in the last decade.

The mammal has been suspected as a possible source of human coronavirus infection but the science so far is suggestive rather than conclusive.

WCS director Noviar Andayani said on Tuesday many of the pangolins were sold illegally on online platforms. This means the young generation's expertise in technology can potentially be used to help stop the practice.

"We're dealing with illegal online trading. That's why we need the young generation's expertise on technology to help us protect our biodiversity and wildlife," Noviar said during a World Pangolin Day 2020 celebration at @america in Pacific Place, South Jakarta.

Six young Indonesian conservation specialists and programmers in the WCS's Navy Pangolin team have created a prototype artificial intelligence-powered application called Pang The Pangolin.

Lintang Sutawika, one of the team members, said the application should make analysis of raw data about the illegal pangolin trade more effective.

"We've found that data extraction is the most time-consuming task for conservation analysts because they need to compile a lot of information from online news. Imagine if there are ten articles on each case, it will take a lot of time to analyze the data. With our technology, this process can be automated," Lintang said.

Lintang said the application's algorithm is able to analyze keywords according to the sentences' context. Analysts only need to submit the articles to the application's library then the algorithm will take over to analyze the information.

"After that, the analyst will receive information about where the transaction took place, the dates and so on. The results are presented on an interface that will allow the analyst to correct mistakes," Lintang said.

Pang The Pangolin is also equipped with machine learning, which means the more articles and corrections are submitted to the application, the more accurate it will be. Lintang hopes the application can be used not only to prevent the trafficking of pangolins but also to stop wildlife crimes in general.

Pang The Pangolin was created in November 2019 when the Navy Pangolin team competed in the Borneo Zoohackathon, a regional computer-coding competition to develop new applications to help end wildlife trafficking organized by the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

After coming in first in the regional competition, the team advanced to the Global Zoohackathon 2019 where they won second place.

Pangolins in Indonesia

According to Yunita Setyorini, another Navy Pangolin team member and also a data analyst at WSC, very few people consume pangolins in Indonesia. However, Indonesian pangolin, also known as Sunda pangolin (Manis Javanica), is in high demand in Hong Kong, Vietnam and mainland China.

"People believe consuming pangolin's scales can cure illness and increase vitality, but there is no scientific proof so far," Yuni said.

Yuni said certain ethnic groups in Indonesia consume the pangolin and use its tongue to perform a mystical ritual. She also said there had been several failed attempts at breeding the pangolins in captivity. 

According to Yuni, the government has declared the pangolin a protected animal since it became more aware of its large-scale trafficking.

"The government is aware of the issue and has actively tried to stop pangolin trafficking. But they still need to revise the 1990 Natural Resources Conservation Law to make it easier to punish the illegal traders," she said.