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Over the last 60 years, commerce in exotic wild plants increased in Western countries. Alongside the legal trade in plants, the profitability of the market also boosted illegal markets. Wild plant crimes have long been a focus of concern mainly in conservation science.

In criminology, while the illegal trade in wild animals (and animal parts e.g. ivory) is receiving increasing attention, the illegal trade in plants has so far been under-investigated. However, wild plant trafficking threatens and destroys numerous species and important natural resources and hinders the rule of law and security as profits are also used to finance other forms of trafficking.

The Internet has increased the illegal trade in wild plants, facilitating the encounter of supply and demand; no matter how highly specialised the market in certain wild plants, it is much easier to find potential buyers or sellers online than in the physical world. There is consensus that the policing of such a criminal activity is still scarce and poorly resourced. A major challenge is the fact that law enforcement agencies have limited training opportunities and lack of equipment and specific expertise to counter effectively this illegal trade.

FloraGuard combines innovative and cross-disciplinary ways of analysing online marketplaces for the illegal trade in endangered plants with analyses of existing policing practices to assist law enforcement in the detection and investigation of illegal trades of endangered plants.

The project focuses on the UK, which serves as a major transit and destination market for the European region as plants are traded for a range of uses, from their perceived value in traditional medicine to their inclusion in gourmet dining as well as their aesthetic value.

Decision Support Social Intelligence

IT Innovation's Role

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We are using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML) to analyse at a community level the economic, social and geographical dynamics of a sample of online marketplaces active in the UK.

We are developing novel Open Information Extraction (OpenIE) algorithms to extract information from online marketplace posts. We then use machine learning approaches such as word2vec, association mining and clustering to perform socio-economic and geo-social mapping of the online trade activity.

Ultimately our tools will be used as part of an integrated ICT-enabled criminology methodology to help UK Border Force plan policing strategies to disrupt, degrade and deter criminal activity.

Project Fact Sheet

FloraGuard is a 30 month project funded by the ESRC, which is a collaboration with the UK Border Force and Kew Gardens.

Coordinator: University of Southampton
Website: http://floraguard.org/
Twitter: @flora_guard

This project is funded by the ESRC under agreement number ES/R003254/1.