FloraGuard: Tackling the Online Illegal Trade in Endangered Plants Through a Cross-Disciplinary ICT-Enabled Methodology

Published date01 August 2020
Date01 August 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2020, Vol. 36(3) 428 –450
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986220910297
FloraGuard: Tackling the
Online Illegal Trade in
Endangered Plants Through
a Cross-Disciplinary ICT-
Enabled Methodology
Anita Lavorgna1, Stuart E. Middleton2,
Brian Pickering2, and Geoff Neumann2
This article presents a part of the ongoing Economic and Social Research Council
(ESRC)-funded project “FloraGuard: Tackling the illegal trade in endangered plants”
that relies on cross-disciplinary approaches to analyze 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. This
contribution focuses on how the project brought together computer science,
criminology, conservation science, and law enforcement expertise to create a tool
for the automatic gathering of relevant online information to be used for research,
intelligence, and investigative purposes. The article also discusses the ethical standards
applied and proposes the concept of “artificial intelligence (AI) review” to provide a
sociotechnical solution that builds trustworthiness in the AI approaches used for this
type of cross-disciplinary information and communications technology (ICT)-enabled
wildlife trafficking, plant crimes, explainable AI, ethics in online research, natural
language processing
1University of Southampton, UK
2Gamma House, Southampton, UK
Corresponding Author:
Anita Lavorgna, Associate Professor of Criminology, Department of Sociology, Social Policy &
Criminology, University of Southampton, Murray Building, 58 Salisbury Road, Southampton SO17 1BJ,
Email: a.lavorgna@soton.ac.uk
910297CCJXXX10.1177/1043986220910297Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeLavorgna et al.
Lavorgna et al. 429
Over the last 60 years, the horticultural trade, and particularly the market of exotic and
wild plants, has increased significantly (Novoa et al., 2017; Sajeva et al., 2007). Exotic
and wild plants are harvested and traded all over the world to use their parts and
derivatives for a variety of purposes, including as pharmaceuticals, beauty products,
and food. Alongside the legal trade in plants and their derivatives, the profitability of
this market has contributed to the increase in illegal commerce, with endangered spe-
cies traded in contravention to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The internet has further increased the ille-
gal trade of plants and their derivatives, facilitating the connection of supply and
demand and making it a real hybrid (online and offline) market (Lavorgna, 2014). No
matter how highly specialized the market in a certain species is, it is much easier to
find potential buyers or sellers online than in the physical world (Interpol, 2013, 2018;
Lavorgna, 2014; Olmos-Lau & Mandujano, 2016; Sajeva et al., 2013; Wu, 2007).
Within this context, there is consensus that the policing of such criminal activity is
still limited and poorly resourced (Elliott, 2012; Lavorgna, 2014; Lemieux, 2014;
Runhovde, 2017). A major challenge is the fact that law enforcement agencies have
limited training opportunities and lack of equipment and specific expertise to counter
this illegal trade effectively (CITES, 2016; World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2016, 2018).
Crimes against wildlife have low priority on the law enforcement agenda (International
Fund for Animal Welfare [IFAW], 2008); as a result, investigations are generally
sparse (Fajardo del Castillo, 2016; Zimmerman, 2003). As such, there are minimal
consequences for those perpetrating wildlife trafficking, making it a high-profit, low-
risk criminal business (Hinsley, Nuno, et al., 2017). Consequently, the question of how
we can best control and prevent this criminal market needs to be addressed.
This article presents our (United Kingdom) Economic and Social Research Council-
funded project “FloraGuard: Tackling the illegal trade in endangered plants,” which
analyses the criminal market in endangered plants involving the United Kingdom
using mixed methods and cross-disciplinary approaches, and explores strategies to
develop digital resources to assist law enforcement. For the scope of this article, we
will focus on a specific part of the project, which brings together computer science,
criminology, conservation science (plant ecology), and law enforcement expertise to
create a tool to gather relevant online information on illegal trade in endangered plants
more effectively to be used by researchers for analyses, and by law enforcement and
other stakeholders for intelligence and investigative purposes. After presenting a brief
outline on the illegal trades in plants and their research significance, the article contin-
ues by presenting the peculiar characteristics of the approach we are using in our
(ongoing at the time of writing) research project (our sampling strategy, the data col-
lection methods, and the strategy for data analysis). The rest of the article conceptual-
izes and elaborates on the information and communications technology (ICT)-enabled
methodology we propose for work analyzing online markets and communities, with a
specific focus on ethics. Finally, the article introduces the idea of an “Artificial
Intelligence (AI) review” to be included in sociotechnical studies relying on AI

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