#WildEye Southern Africa: Combating Wildlife Crime in Southern Africa

Country/area: South Africa

Organisation: Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, USAID’s VukaNow Activity, Farmer’s Weekly, African Women in Media

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 17/11/2021

Credit: Fiona Macleod, Derick Du Toit, Roxanne Joseph, Andiswa Matikinca, Mark Hartman, Tristan Mathiesen, Calistus Bosaletswe, Mbauwo Chavula, Daiana Nhatave, Nompumelelo Mtsweni and Sean Ndlovu


#WildEye Southern Africa is a project by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, supported by USAID’s VukaNow Activity. Oxpeckers is Africa’s first journalistic investigation unit focusing on environmental issues. It combines traditional investigative reporting with data analysis and geo-mapping tools to expose eco-offences and track organised criminal syndicates. 

USAID’s VukaNow Activity (“VukaNow”) is a multi-faceted, five-year regional activity, operating in Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, with the goal of significantly reducing wildlife crime in southern Africa.

Artman Designs is a digital design agency geared towards graphic design, web design, app design, UX design and social media management

Project description:

#WildEye Southern Africa is a ground-breaking open-source tool that provides access to information on wildlife trafficking across the region. Like earlier iterations of #WildEye, the Southern Africa mapping tool, allows users to track seizures, arrests, court cases and convictions. What sets this version apart is how we did it. It was built from the ground up, with the help of data wranglers from Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Through intensive training and mentorship, our wranglers collected exclusive data on wildlife crimes in Southern Africa. This data was then published on #WildEye, making it the first-of-its-kind on the continent.

Impact reached:

We have seen significant success in making wildlife trafficking data publicly accessible. By shining a light on the scale of illegal wildlife trade taking place, we have sparked the interest of other journalists, government, law enforcement, and organisations monitoring and investigating wildlife crime. We have mapped over 400 incidents of wildlife crime on the #WildEye Southern Africa map. These span six different countries and record information on dozens of endangered species. This is also the first time that some of this information has ever been made publicly accessible. Most notable is data shared by the Attorney General of Mozambique. This information has not, to our knowledge, been shared with journalists prior to this. 

We have contributed to the narrative around environmental reporting and its potential impact in the region. Following on from our previous focus on Covid-19 and its links to illegal wildlife trade, we have seen a continued need to monitor and report on these types of crimes. #WildEye Southern Africa has highlighted the need for urgent action when it comes to conservation in this part of the world. 

We have also trained five investigative reporters in data journalism, and offered them mentorship and skill-building opportunities. Beyond this core group, we have expanded the #WildEye community to include 170+ more journalists, law enforcement agents, scientists, government officials, wildlife activists and conservationists.

In 2021, we formalised our relationship with the global wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic, signing a long-term data-sharing agreement with them. This collaboration will continue to boost information on seizures, poaching and any enforcement actions in Southern Africa.

Journalists have reported using the tool for data sourcing, learning and professional growth, updates, trade route and trend analysis, data visualisation, academic and scientific research, teaching and training, monitoring illegal wildlife trade,  story research and documentary development, and investigative reporting

Techniques/technologies used:

#WildEye Southern Africa was built by our team of developers using an open-source platform, Mapbox. It was then customised to suit our needs as data journalists. 

This iteration of the tool included significant updates to the #WildEye platform. Users are now able to access all versions of the tool via a single page, and can toggle between the different maps available. 

#WildEye’s main feature is a map of the globe showing where law enforcement agencies and legal systems have been involved in action against wildlife trafficking. Each case is identified by an icon that signifies either a seizure, an arrest, a court case or a conviction. 

For the first time since creating the tool, we worked closely with a group of locally-based data wranglers, offering them monthly training sessions and continued professional support throughout the project. This ensured that the data collected was good quality and could easily be integrated into the mapping tool. 

Our alert system has shown immense success, allowing users to subscribe and receive regular updates on court cases. We have received positive feedback from a diverse #WildEye community, who use this function to follow specific cases, and track trends and routes that interest them. 

Data is uploaded on Mapbox via a Google spreadsheet that is updated on a weekly basis, sometimes more frequently. Methods of data collection range from scraping social media and news sites to working with reports and datasets provided by monitoring organisations. We convert bulky reports and complex datasets into spreadsheets that can be analysed and added to #WildEye. By engaging with organisations such as Traffic, the Wildlife Justice Commission, the Environmental Investigation Agency, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, the Environmental Reporting Collective and the Indonesian Data Journalism Network, we have been able to access some of this data more easily

What was the hardest part of this project?

Our main challenge continued to be access to good quality data. However, we saw improved success by working closely with local journalists and data wranglers. By employing people on-the-ground and individuals who understand the context in which wildlife trafficking occurs, we have been able to access more data from government and law enforcement agencies. 

We spent over a year creating a training and professional support programme that allowed us to offer environmental journalists in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe one-on-one experience. We were continuously assessing and re-adjusting the programme to suit their needs, and to meet our project goals. Although challenging, we feel that the #WildEye Southern Africa tool and its achievements speak to the success of the programme, and we will continue to implement this model. 

Travel restrictions made access to information difficult for our data wranglers, and although we scheduled monthly meetings/training sessions/public events, internet access and finances were an added challenge throughout. Despite this, they were able to participate fully in the programme and will be awarded with certificates of completion at the end of January 2022. 

One thing that became clear during the project was a lack of understanding of legal processes around wildlife and other environmental crimes. This extended beyond our data wranglers, and we attempted to address this by enlisting the help of the Legal Resources Centre South Africa, who trained participants in a public webinar (bit.ly/3A4BN1z). Through this, we aimed to help journalists understand their rights and provide practical tips on how to navigate the legislative environments in various countries, in support of better reporting. However, we see the need for continued intensive training to ensure that the #WildEye community has a better understanding of court processes. We will implement this in future projects

What can others learn from this project?

#WildEye Southern Africa combines open-source technology with on-the-ground investigative reporting. Above all else, it is about making information easily and freely available to all. By doing so, we aim to make it easier—through data journalism— to hold government and law enforcement agencies accountable for cracking down on illicit wildlife trade in the region. 

Our data wranglers persisted and persevered, and were able to get access to good quality data. Throughout this process, they learned about their rights as reporters (and as citizens) and received in-depth training on the legal systems in various southern African countries. This meant that they knew how to ask for information and what data we had a right to publish. 

At the same time, the data only matters if users are able to access it in a way that feels intuitive, simple and personal. 

#WildEye Southern Africa is an ongoing project, and we will continue to map illegal wildlife trade in the region through future grant opportunities, as well as use the collaborative model developed as a blueprint for future data journalism projects

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