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Floraguard: Tackling the illegal trade in endangered plants

Endangered plants
Endangered plants

Project Outline

FloraGuard: Tackling the illegal trade in endangered plants is an ongoing ESRC-funded project that brings together criminology, computer science, conservation science and law enforcement expertise to analyse online marketplaces for the illegal trade in endangered plants, and explores strategies to develop digital resources to assist law enforcement in countering and disrupting this criminal market.

Plant crime is a major environmental problem that over the years has received attention in the area of conservation science and, more recently, also in the field of green criminology, a fast-developing field of criminology focusing on the harms and crimes committed against the natural environment and non-human animals and plants living in it. It has been recognised that the illegal plant trade threatens and destroys numerous species and important natural resources, and can cause phytosanitary risks. In recent years, the illegal plant trade is commonly believed to have grown with the expansion of globalisation and the commercialisation of cyberspace, with the internet facilitating supply and demand in this illegal market. Within this context, however, there is consensus that the policing of such criminal activity is still limited and poorly resourced; as such, there are minimal consequences for those perpetrating illegal plant trade (and, similarly, other types of wildlife trafficking), making it a high-profit, low-risk criminal business.

In FloraGuard we are exploring how natural language processing techniques could be used to gather information from large crawls of relevant auction and forum websites. The informaton gathered can then be used to identify patterns and be graphically represented to highlight - among other things - persons, species or places of interest. This approach can be used by researchers, but also by law enforcement (such as national wildlife crime units and customs officers) and other relevant stakeholders in identifying cases of illegal online trade in prohibited (and especially endangered) plants and their derivatives, as well as in fostering the more general improvement of awareness and technical capacity in investigation and prosecution services for wildlife crimes. From a more academic perspective, by integrating insights and expertise from criminology, computer science and conservation science, the methodological approach explored has important implications for demonstrating cross-disciplinary methodological developments as a way to improve analytical quality in online research.

As part of our research, we have identified a number of online markets active in the illegal sale of both live specimens and derivative products, discussed their more recent trends, and presented the main strategies used by suppliers to build and maintain their customer base, while minimising their risks. We have identified a range of buyers’ motivations (ranging from horticulture to psychonautics), and analysed the varying social organisation of the suppliers - all aspects that carry important consequences in terms of crime prevention and control. We have also identified what are some specific challenges in tackling plant crimes, and suggested a number of short- and medium-term cost/effective interventions which, if properly implemented, would have a good potential in preventing or disrupting the illegal marketplace, mitigating the problem.

Floraguard Policy Brief
Floraguard Policy Brief

Latest News

You can keep updated on the Floraguard project here, and read the Policy Brief here or by clicking on the image on the right.

Finally, we organised a FloraGuard webinar to present our research on October 30, 2020. Click on the link below to watch the online webinar.


FloraGuard Webinar Video
Floraguard ReportKEW Gardens blog on FloraguardPolicy Brief

Meet the project team

Dr Anita Lavorgna is Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Southampton. She is currently leading research projects on internet-facilitated wildlife trafficking and harmful alternative health practices. Anita’s research pivots around cybercrimes (especially trafficking activities online), serious and organised crime, and the propagation of misleading and fraudulent health information.

Dr Stuart E. Middleton is a Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Southampton, Electronics and Computer Science (ECS). His grants focus on natural language processing and information extraction in application areas such as online cybercrime analytics, intelligence analysis, legal document analysis and data rescue from historical climate change documents. He has appeared as an AI expert at events such as a UK Cabinet Office ministerial AI roundtable on 'use of AI in policing' 2019.

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