Cracking down on conservation crime

2 August 2018

Dr Kurland and colleague working in Redwood National and State Parks.

Justin Kurland has spent a lot of time out among the majestic Redwoods in Northern California. He has seen the damage criminals are doing to the ancient trees, hacking off valuable burls with chainsaws, and leaving destruction in their wake. He and fellow crime scientists came up with a with a comprehensive intervention strategy to reduce the opportunities for Redwood burl poachers.

Dr Kurland has moved on from hanging out with State and Federal Rangers in the US, to the University of Waikato’s Institute for Security and Crime Science.  He has bought his skills in analysing crime patterns, knowledge about illicit wildlife trafficking, and enthusiasm for preventing wildlife and conservation crime to focus in New Zealand. In addition to his work on conservation crime Dr Kurland has developed a greater understanding of how crime patterns are generated, including around facilties like stadia during events. He wants people to know that the stereotype of crime scientists wedded to their computer screens is not always accurate.

The Redwoods research is an example of getting out into the world to do challenging work. Dr Kurland, with assistance from Rangers, collected data with a GPS device, to geolocate trees that had been victimized by poachers, then used the data to model what made particular areas in the park more vulnerable.  As it turns out poachers are a lazy bunch, preferring to hack off burls from trees situated at a higher elevation than nearby roads used to access the park. They do this so that they can roll them down hill to a waiting vehicle, not that far from somewhere they can then quickly sell the valuable wood. In fact, not a single burl was taken from more than 200-metres from a road.  Information like this allowed Dr Kurland to provide practical guidance for more spatially focused ranger patrols and other fixes.

There are quite a few challenges involved in the field of conservation crime. For example, the victims are unable to make formal complaints.  When a Rhino is poached for its horn, who reports it? It is often taken less seriously than crimes involving humans, but Dr Kurland says it is serious, and the consequences can be devastating. “Take illegal logging - around the world it is impacting climate change, destabilizing ecosystems, and creating threats for certain species that our children and grandchildren may never get the opportunity to see.”

In New Zealand, Dr Kurland hopes to explore issues like illegal logging and fishing, as well as problems such as mānuka honey beehive theft. Each of these conservation related problems presents a set of different challenges, and Dr Kurland says that multidisciplinary research is the key. More specifically, he feels that those from the environmental sciences have rich knowledge related to conservation problems that is critical for understanding the context of specific forms of wildlife crime and for developing interventions to better prevent the problem from persisting. “If both groups work collaboratively, there is the potential for a huge amount of work to be done.”