Technology: the now and future of wildlife conservation

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A little more than a generation ago the tools of field science and wildlife monitoring were a notebook and pencil. There may well have been the odd computer back in a laboratory somewhere, but data collection was difficult, took a long time, and the results were certainly not fed into systems that could be used for immediate response. Now, powerful, portable computers coupled with advanced cell and satellite communication are becoming the driving force behind conservation strategies, strategies that enable innovative scientists and wildlife protection authorities to act in real time.

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Somewhere in Kruger …

Somewhere deep in the Kruger National Park, in a command centre with an array of some 300 CCTV monitors, a piercing alarm goes off. On one of the screens a red light flashes. An operator immediately zooms in and there, clearly to the trained eye, is a thermal image of several humans. They shouldn’t be there in the cleared and restricted border zone between South Africa and Mozambique. Who are they? Poachers? The operator is already on his cell phone talking to a colleague. Within minutes an unmanned aerial vehicle – a drone – takes off.

Guided unerring by precise coordinates, the drone’s own thermal software soon has the suspects within in “sight”. They can hear the quiet buzzing of the UAV but cannot see it in the pre-dawn darkness. Alarmed, the suspects start to move quickly seeking the cover of thicker bush, but the continuing thermal glimpses are all the drone needs to keep up.

Meanwhile a police helicopter team has scrambled and manages to join the drone before its now failing battery sends it back to base. The chopper’s powerful searchlights now have the poaching suspects pinned to the spot and they are ordered through the clatter of engine and thudding blades to lay down their weapons. Minutes late it is all over, the armed intruders are under arrest before they have had a chance to track and kill a rhino, and are being whisked away for further interrogation.

… meanwhile in Cameroon

In Cameroon, some 6,000 kilometres away to the north, in the deep gloom of Korup National Park’s rainforest, a burst of automatic fire is muffled by the acoustic screen of the arboreal canopy. But the forest has ears, not only those owned by the millions of forest creatures, but also highly specialized microphones engineered not only to “hear” rifle fire, but also to triangulate its precise origin.

As in Kruger, a signal is received and a highly trained anti-poaching patrol, funded by a global NGO, is deployed by helicopter. In military fashion, the well armed men rappel into a small clearing no more than 20 metres from the pinpointed gunfire intelligence. A short way down a well-worn game track they come upon a gruesome sight. Three elephants lie in a pool of blood, their tusks missing, brutally hacked from their faces. It is too late for the elephants, but the thieves weighed down by their booty are no match for the tracking skills of the crack anti-poaching team. Six tusks are recovered along with a grisly assortment of bushmeat and six poachers arrested.

The above two accounts are fictional but certainly not beyond the bounds of short-term reality. The systems required are already being tested in the field.

Cameras that learn …

For example, in Kenya WWF, with a grant from Google has developed thermal/infrared cameras that can spot poachers from afar and alert rangers to respond. The cameras pick up the thermal footprint of people and animals within lens range, but the really clever bit is that the inbuilt software has ‘learnt’ to distinguish people from other animals. The implications are clear – a ground breaking solution for detecting possible poachers moving illegally across park boundaries and nabbing them before they can harm rhinos, elephants and other creatures. Pilot projects base on this technology have been set up in the Masai Mara Game Reserve and if successful conservation authorities across Africa could be adding this powerful tool to their anti-poaching arsenal.

… and forest ears

Of course, thermal imaging in vast impenetrable forests such as Korup would be nigh on impossible. But where you can’t see you can still hear. Witness the efforts of an international team of scientists working in the Cameroonian park. They recently completed a two-year study to find out where and when gunshots were being fired.

Their results make for fascinating reading and have created an invaluable data base for park management. For example, they found that hunting is at its peak early in the week when poachers gather produce for the coming Saturday markets and that the seasonal peak is during the November – March dry season.

There are also noticeable increases before major holidays. Preferred hunting locations were also located. Taking this one step further, the same acoustic monitoring systems that have been widely and successfully tested to pin point trouble in urban areas of high gun-related crime could prove invaluable in strategies to protect great apes, rhino, elephants and other heavily targeted forest species.

Watching from space

Over the border in Nigeria’s Cross River Reserve, satellite imagery has enabled photography of such high resolution that even individual trees and small houses in rural villages can be identified. This, together, with field work using rugged, hand held computers allows fieldworkers to record data in real time on satellite maps. Not only do the field workers know exactly where they are at any given time, they have also been able to compile an impressive record of the gorillas’ movements and to create a gorilla “habitat suitability map”.

From cyber-mapping of gorilla activity, such as plotting dung and nest sites, researchers now know that the Cross River gorillas are distributed over a much wider area than originally thought and in places where no previous record had been made. This is good news, for although there are currently only some 300 Cross River gorillas in existence there are still many places for them to expand into. Provided of course that poaching and further habitat loss can be curbed.

 

Many of these new opportunities require considerable investment in time, human resource and capital outlay, but not all. Take the elephant work being done in Kenya’s Lewa Conservancy, where radio tracking collars and cell phone connectivity have been in use by researchers for some time in the tracking of herd migration and foraging patters. But now this relatively low cost technology is being used more widely, particularly to help in matters of human-elephant conflict, an ever-increasing issue.

Disrupting crime networks

A key strategy in current in combating wildlife crime is by disrupting the activities of poaching networks. For example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and INTERPOL are developing a counter-wildlife crime intelligence fusion centre that can join community anti-poaching intelligence with high-tech data analysis and enhanced national security operations to stop elephant and rhino poachers before they strike.

The project is known as tenBoma takes its name from an existing Kenyan community policing philosophy called Nyumba Kumi meaning Ten Houses. TenBoma expands this same philosophy to include Kenya’s national parks and surrounding areas in a network of watchfulness and information sharing together.

Based on the resulting data analysis, KWS can create predictive models and anticipatory responses to poaching in Tsavo and Amboseli national parks – placing Kenya law enforcement one step ahead of organized crime groups and armed militias. If successful this model can be adopted and replicated elsewhere in Africa to help stem the poaching crisis.

Educating elephants to bypass cropland

Elephants can wreak havoc in croplands and threaten, and even kill, the farmers themselves. So, what a win-win situation, when known crop-raiding elephants can be fitted with radio collars to track their movements. The moment such an elephant gets near a farm or settlement a signal alerts rangers who can then move in quickly to chase the animal away. Unsurprisingly the “problem” elephants quickly learn to recognize these virtual fences and to stay well clear.

Jon Hoekstra, Chief Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, recounts the above example in his highly informative article, “Networking Nature” for Foreign Affairs magazine.

Hubble – from star gazing to spot gazing

At the other end of the scale who would have thought that the cosmos gazing Hubble Space Telescope could be turned inwards, not only in the broad, global interests of conservation, but for the wellbeing of a single species. Well, it has happened. The endangered whale shark – the biggest of all fishes – has a pattern of spots on its skin that is unique to each individual. And Hubble can identify these whale shark “fingerprints”, and tag them without human any human contact.

Known as the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-Identification Library, the project encourages marine photographic enthusiasts to upload their images of whale sharks to the database. The photographers get an email alert each time “their shark” is spotted” and scientists gain an increasing data base from which to learn more about the species behaviour. So far about 32,000 photographs of some 2,800 different whale sharks, have been contributed by more than 2,600 people.

Ocean sail drones

Another marine innovation is the ASD, or Autonomous Sail Drone, the ocean going equivalent of the aerial robots that are so widely used. Although relatively expensive, wind-powered seadrones operate at nothing like the cost of research ships and so can be deployed in numbers over a wide ocean area to collect and transmit data. For example, they have successfully located and tracked oil seeps and have measured the biological responses to them, in the Bering Sea they have been used to produce fish abundance estimates that are key to the sustainable management of commercial fisheries, and seadrones are being used as part of a three-year long-range weather forecasting pilot with NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

In Africa, with its immense coastline and territorial waters which are systematically plundered by illegal fishing operations, saildrones can play a vital role in feeding back real time data to sorely stretched policing resources.

Mapping whole ecosystems … in real time

These are but a few examples how technology is giving conservationists and anti-poaching authorities tools that would have been beyond their wildest dreams even a decade ago. As Jan Hoekstra says: ‘We can now monitor entire ecosystems – think of the Amazon rainforest – in nearly real time, using remote sensors to map their three-dimensional structures; satellite communications to follow elusive creatures, such as the jaguar and the puma; and smartphones to report illegal logging.

‘Such innovations are revolutionizing conservation in two key ways: first, by revealing the state of the world in unprecedented detail and, second, by making available more data to more people in more places.’

The caveat of unintended circumstances

He does warn, however, that technology also carries risks. In the hands of wildlife traffickers the same systems providing information about animal whereabouts and the movement of their protectors could be disastrous. And advances in biotechnology, especially, could have consequences beyond those that were intended.

“Yet on balance,” says Hoekstra “technological innovation gives new hope for averting the planet’s environmental collapse and reversing its accelerating rates of habitat loss, animal extinction, and climate change.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Caption for main photograph: Sail drone in action – keeping tabs on climate change, fishery stocks, oil spills and a whole lot more.

This article was first written for and published in Travel Africa Magazine.

 

 

 

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About Author

Peter has a career in publishing and conservation spanning more than four decades. His most recent project has been the development of Untold Africa, a meeting place for intelligent, engrossing and entertaining dialogue for a global community of like-minded people - people who share a common passion for the wild places of Africa, the creatures that inhabit them, and the breadth of African culture. See more

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