National Geographic Society Newsroom

Big Data and Analytics Helping to Protect Big Cats

By Charlotte Davies, Crime Analyst, Environmental Investigation Agency; and Shaun Hipgrave, Intelligence Analytics Expert at IBM From tracking the illegal trading of hazardous substances and uncovering evidence of the trade in endangered big cats including tigers in Asia, data analytics is increasingly being used to fight environmental crime. Much like organized crime, environmental crime can...

By Charlotte Davies, Crime Analyst, Environmental Investigation Agency; and Shaun Hipgrave, Intelligence Analytics Expert at IBM

From tracking the illegal trading of hazardous substances and uncovering evidence of the trade in endangered big cats including tigers in Asia, data analytics is increasingly being used to fight environmental crime. Much like organized crime, environmental crime can be localized or global. Left unchecked, it can threaten biodiversity and species’ survival on a global level.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) pioneered the strategy of covert investigations, using hidden filming and often dangerous on-the-ground detective work in a new kind of activism aimed at exposing environmental crimes against wildlife and threatened habitats. The agency’s goal? To protect the environment with intelligence.

Though a small, independent organization, EIA has become an influential international body. In the late 1980s, EIA’s efforts helped usher in a worldwide ivory ban. The agency has focused global attention on the illegal trade in tigers, exposed the single biggest market for illegal timber and helped track the recent spike in elephant poaching.

But with the expansion of sophisticated illegal networks, EIA needed a new strategy for highlighting these transnational, highly organized trades run by criminal networks, which corrupt authorities and exploit local communities.

Enforcement against environmental crime needs to uncover the kingpins at the heart of transnational wildlife crime networks and track collusion between various entities to circumvent attempts to protect forests; EIA believes that there needs to be a sophisticated approach to a sophisticated problem.

Enter big data. The buzzword of business and technology these days, big data is a new approach to utilizing the reams of information generated through social networks, videos and photos, mobile phones and the Web — with an estimated doubling of information every two years — to better understand the world.

Using the strategy of harnessing big data, EIA is able to capture the right information it needs to fight environmental crime — information that’s out there just waiting to be gathered. Big data is helping to paint a more distinct picture of today’s eco-criminals, pinpointing links between seemingly unconnected criminal groups and illegal activities. It can cover trading in the skins and bones of endangered Asian big cats such as tigers, the trafficking of illegal timber, and uncover trends that were previously obscured, or suggest new approaches to combating the escalating worldwide onslaught on endangered species and biodiversity.

EIA turned to IBM to create a custom database it could mine to plan and process investigation findings, and help present the case for international change. EIA initially focused on the big cat trade but expanded its use of big data to other illegal and destructive activities, including the rise in the ivory trade and the ransacking of precious forests.

For instance, by using big data, EIA could link seemingly disparate cases of the trafficking of different species to a group of enterprises, subsequently identifying further connections between associates of this network and additional trafficking cases across continents.

In another case, EIA received a tip about an attempt by companies to smuggle hazardous chemicals. By comparing and analyzing transactions, companies involved and subject aliases with a decade-old case file, EIA built up a picture showing a potential trafficking conspiracy. It then used the system to pull together a presentation to graphically demonstrate these links, which was shared with the relevant countries and spurred a follow-up investigation.

The power behind these actions lies in the information EIA collects and the sophisticated analytics that extract insights from a matchless collection of investigative groundwork. EIA has one of the world’s largest archives of footage, photography and research on the illegal trade in wildlife products and other environmentally damaging commodities. This archive dates back to 1984 when the organization was founded to expose the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.

EIA pores through the videos and photos its investigators take on the ground of illegally traded items, corrupt merchants, processing plants, exploitive contracts signed by multinational companies with landowners, and transactions between companies and networks. The database houses field reports from EIA’s investigations and old case files, and government, press, research reports and information on enforcement actions worldwide, whether arrests of wildlife traffickers or crackdowns on illegal logging.

In the past, each of these mountains of data were stored in separate computers or on paper profile sheets with telephone numbers and photographic records attached. As the number of investigations increased and the criminal networks became more sophisticated, these piles of information grew, making it increasingly difficult to sift through them and identify connections or trends.

Using i2 investigative analytics software from IBM, EIA can now visually lay out the different nodes of inter-related criminal activities, providing a clearer picture to policy-makers of what is happening in the illegal market. EIA can also share intelligence, tailored to partner specifications, with others combating eco-crimes.

Because borders pose few barriers to today’s sophisticated, organized and burgeoning global trade, EIA calls on enforcement agencies and governments to cooperate with each other by sharing information and coordinating enforcement actions, to dig down into the roots of the illegal trade to identify criminals, disrupt networks and protect species.

EIA was established to gather facts it could present to the public and to decision-makers to drive meaningful change. It’s a lofty goal, but one that has produced results because of partnerships. Over the years, through working on the ground with partners, including Indonesia’s Telapak to fight illegal logging and the Wildlife Protection Society of India to investigate trade in tiger parts, EIA has gathered the evidence to convince key decision-makers and legal bodies to, for instance, close illegal mines that were contributing to key habitat loss and to force crackdowns on illegal logging.

The information needed to understand and respond to the underlying causes behind environmental crime and smartly target criminals is all around: it just needs to be transformed into intelligence-led enforcement. With public awareness and international action, reducing environmental harm is a shared goal.

Charlotte DaviesShaun HipgraveCharlotte Davies joined the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2008, where she primarily works on the trade in Asian big cats, ivory and timber. Previously she worked as an analyst with a law enforcement agency, on a range of crime types.

Shaun Hipgrave served in the British Army for 10 years. He joined Northumbria Police in 1990 where he became an expert in the use of telephone analysis in major crime investigations.  In 2003 he joined Forensic Telecommunications Services and continued to provide advice on the use of digital data in major investigations.  He has been involved in of some of the UK’s and Global major investigations working with organizations such as Scotland Yard and the United Nations (UN).  He has utilized intelligence analysis at the cutting edge of those investigations. In early 2012 he joined i2 and has become an IBMer as part of the i2 acquisition by IBM.  He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology and Law from Northumbria University.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn