By Alice Chen - 20. July 2020
- The world is dealing with an unbelievable spike in the illegal wildlife trade, one that in many ways threatens the past few decades of gains in conservation efforts.
- To combat the rising threat from poaching, conservationists have devised several strategies, some of which have been greatly effective.
- The African Wildlife Foundation recently enhanced the Kenya Wildlife Service's dog unit, which is used to detect contraband wildlife products at airports and seaports.
- Another area that AI and technology come in handy is in the direct act of wildlife security. This is referring to actually protecting the animals before they get poached rather than seizing artifacts after the fact.
The world is dealing with an unbelievable spike in the illegal wildlife trade, one that in many ways threatens the past few decades of gains in conservation efforts. For instance, rhino poaching in South Africa increased from 13 to 1,004 between 2007 and 2013, representing a 7700% increase in hunted animals of this type. In 2011 meanwhile, ivory estimated at a weight of 23 metric tons - a figure that accounts for 2500 elephants - was seized in a group of the largest such seizures. Other animals that are threatened include the already endangered wild tiger population, a species whose remnaining population number only around 4,000.
Wildlife poaching is a serious and lasting problem that has had particularly noticeable effects in the East African region where demands for ivory and rhino horns have contributed to a cataclysmic decline in the elephant and rhino populations in Kenya and Tanzania. Wildlife poaching is a large area of criminal enterprise, as it's a big business with lots of money to be made. And over the years wildlife crime has evolved, presenting an array of new challenges to continued conservation efforts. Where once firearms were used, poachers have now moved to snares and poisoning. Poacher's trade routes and concealment techniques have also evolved. In many ways, these international poaching networks traffick goods similarly to how drugs and weapons are moved around.
Because of the subterfuge involved in the crime, it is near impossible to obtain reliable figures for the overall value of the illegal wildlife trade, but experts estimate that it runs into billions of dollars. Outside of the most well-known poaching examples, like the aforementioned elephants, rhinos, and tigers, a variety of other species are also exploited. Though some use of animal products may be unavoidable in daily life, poaching has reached a tipping point towards a crisis where it is illegal and unsustainable, thereby running the risk of completely eliminating certain types of animals. Here are some ways that countries are trying to fight back and stop this problem from growing further.
8. AI Image Database and Camera Traps
Foresters install photo traps on a tree for automatic photographing or video shooting of wildlife in the forest. Image credit: SERGEI PRIMAKOV/Shutterstock.com
One problem when faced with illegal bones, and other animal parts is the matter of knowing where they came from - specifically if they originated from protected areas in other countries. Fortunately, AI can help. In India, camera traps have been set up everywhere to help identify the unique stripe patterns of tigers within protected ranges. These images go into a global database which can then be accessed to determine if a seized tiger pelt matches any of the identified animals within it - critically allowing for law enforcement officials to locate the origins of seized poaching materials.
7. DNA Analysis / Synthetic Substitutes
Image credit: angellodeco/Shutterstock.com
When it comes to animal products, not all of them can be identified by sight and look alone. Thankfully there are technologies that exist to help remedy this problem. DNA analysis can pinpoint the sources of seized animal parts allowing for efforts to be made to increase security in the right areas. On the other end of the spectrum, synthetic substitutes created to mimic materials like rhino horn and ivory are in the works, which could entirely circumvent the need to poach these animals in the first place.
6. Predictive System
Another area that AI and technology come in handy is in the direct act of wildlife security. This is referring to actually protecting the animals before they get poached rather than seizing artifacts after the fact. A Southern California professor came up with an artificial intelligence system called PAWS - which he developed with the Uganda Wildlife Authority - that uses historical poaching data and animal observation to locate predicted hotspots for poachers. These hotspots were then patrolled to great success with snares and poached animals found.
5. First Class Protection
Indonesian officers examine a pangolin after a recent raid in Pekanbaru, Riau province on October 25, 2017. Image credit: Afrianto Silalahi/Shutterstock.com
A more recent move in China has been the strengthened protections for the Chinese pangolin, the world's most trafficked mammal. This new move comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as it shone a light on the risks of consuming wildlife in illegal and unregulated markets. The National Forestry and Grassland Administration moved the protection of native Chinese pangolins from second class to first class, giving it the same level of protection as the giant panda. Basically, by increasing the protection level the species is given greater legal protection and greater effort will be made to improve their habitats and crackdown on their poaching.
4. Kenya Wildlife Service
Ranger from the Kenya Wildlife Service, KWS, in Ngong Hills. Image credit: Rotsee2/Wikimedia.org
The Kenya Wildlife Service was established in 1989 and was a uniformed and strictly disciplined group which brought with it a considerable improvement in wildlife security. Today, however, new methods of poaching and trafficking have forced the Kenya Wildlife Service to step up their game. To this end, they've focused on eliminating poaching in protected areas and reducing it to the bare minimum elsewhere. The group coordinates with law enforcement agencies, government institutions, customs and border control, and local communities all in an effort to stymie poaching.
3. Canine Detection
A German shepherd going through its k9 dog handling training for anti poaching. Image credit: Richard Damian Knight/Shutterstock.com
Another method used by the same Kenya Wildlife Service as mentioned above is the Canine Detection Unit. The African Wildlife Foundation recently enhanced the Kenya Wildlife Service's dog unit, which is used to detect contraband wildlife products at airports and seaports. Similarly, sniffer dogs have been used in Kazakhstan with border patrol officers openly sharing their dependence on the dogs' keen sense of smell. Working on the border checkpoints, these canines are focused on combatting wildlife tracking through the detection of poached wildlife.
2. Educational Workshops
Another key method in combatting wildlife poaching is through education and understanding of the problem. The African Wildlife Foundation leads workshops in various districts throughout Kenya to inform locals, police, officials, and communities about the extent and impact of the poaching and trafficking problem, as well as about the wildlife laws and need to enforce them. Where most other methods on this list look at reducing the supply of poached animal materials, this technique instead focuses on reducing demand by educating and encouraging people to reject poaching and illegal wildlife goods.
1. Trained Rats
African giant pouched rat. Image credit: Louisvarley/Wikimedia.org
Running in a similar circle as the trained canines is the training of rats. These animals are smart, have a keen sense of smell, and as a result, one particular species, the African giant pouched rat, are now being tested to see if they can notice the illegal movement of pangolins and hardwood timber in Tanzania. This innovative and quirky approach is being funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in addition to grants given for rats has also put grant money towards forest patrols and information generation on trafficking routes.
Title-Image credit: Michael Wick/Shutterstock.com
By Victoria Simpson - 12. July 2020
Image credit: Mikhail Yuryev/Shutterstock.com
- Technology has helped protect wildlife through the use of crowd-sourcing data sites, digital mapping, drones, and other technologies.
- Novel fingerprinting techniques are attempting to lift evidence of poaching from animals like pangolins, brought to market.
- Camera traps and hidden cameras are helping to track the habits of animals, as well as poachers in the wild.
Technology adds a lot to our lives. For many people in developed countries, gone are the days of saving your money to make that important long distance phone call. Not only can we now call each other for free with the right smartphone app, but we can see each other’s faces over thousands of miles in real time as we chat over video connections. Technology saves lives, gives people new hearing and eye sight, allows us to earn a living from home, and to actually start the laundry before ever leaving the office.
Apart from bettering the lives of humans, technology is also doing its part to help animals and the environment. Here are ten forms of technology that are helping to protect wildlife.
10. Camera Traps
A camera trap set up in a forest to capture photographs of wildlife. Image credit: Browneye/Shutterstock.com
Have you ever wondered how National Geographic gets that amazing close-up footage of ferocious animals like tigers? The camera person is not just ultra-brave. It is done using a camera trap. These cameras take photos or video when a sensor is triggered by something moving in front of it, ie, a polar bear.
Sometimes camera traps are placed in nature for months on end. Eventually, videographers catch the footage they want.
One way this has helped wildlife is by being able to monitor animals with certain diseases. Cameras that are activated by heat energy have been places in caves to monitor hibernating bats. This is enabling researchers to better understand why some bats develop white-nose syndrome, something that causes them to wake up during hibernation. The bats then burn more fat to stay alive, and risk dying in winter.
Researchers are now learning how this could be prevented.
9. Bioacoustic Monitoring Devices
Nicole Wright of Wildlife Acoustics explains bat-monitoring equipment that records bat sounds normally inaudible to us. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters/Flickr.com
Technology allows animals’ movements to be followed and also their sounds. Scientists are using acoustic sensors to learn more about how certain species live in their environments.
In Mexico, for example, acoustic sensors are being used to monitor vaquitas, which are endangered whales. Passive acoustic monitoring devices have been set up at vaquita spawning spots, in order to measure how many are being born. By learning more about how these creatures live in the Gulf of California, scientists can do more to protect them.
8. Portable DNA Sequencer
Biologists no longer have to write things down on paper in the field. They do not have to wait to get back to the lab in order to analyze their findings, either.
When it comes to analyzing the DNA of an animal or a plant, it can now be done in the field with a portable field lab named GENE. With it, researchers can extract, and sequence DNA. This allows researchers to get feedback instantly, and search for rare species. With new knowledge, biologists can better understand environments faster, which leads to more successful conservation efforts.
7. Mobile Apps to Collect Data
Image credit: Needpix.com
When it comes to protecting wildlife, the more data available, the better. Mobile apps like India’s M-STrIPES app allow users to use their smartphone to collect data on the spot. This is allowing field patrols to collect data on tigers and their prey in many locations. The data is sent to a central server, allowing officials in many areas to work together in trying to keep track of how many tigers there are left in the wild in India.
Drones capturing footage of marine life. Image credit: Frolova_Elena/Shutterstock.com
Drones are fun to fly on a sunny Saturday afternoon. They are also great at helping people count everything from trees to rocks, cars and bushes. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can photograph landscapes, and provide researchers with aerial images. These can be used to analyze habitats and ecosystems in ways that were not so easy and quick to do before. This data can provide insights into what needs protecting in a given landscape, at a cheap cost.
5. Crowdsourcing Data Collection
Open-access data and maps available online to the public on sharing platforms are also contributing to protecting wildlife. With these technologies, anyone can observe large-scale changes that can may be perceived in a landscape over time.
An example of this is Map 4 Environment which stores spatial data sets. This site allows non-experts to share data and make maps online. This is helping to track deforestation in Cacao-producing areas of Ghana, and tree losses in the Cerrado Biome, to name just a few projects. With many minds working at once, the Earth’s environmental problems can be tackled.
4. Fingerprinting Techniques
Fingerprint helps identify individuals. Image credit: vchal/Shutterstock.com
Catching poachers is a large part of wildlife protection in some parts of the world. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth are now using small sheets coated with gelatin called “gel lifters” to remove fingerprints from pangolin scales. This could help track down those who are killing this endangered species.
(Yes, pangolins are those weird creatures full of keratin that some people think have magical powers but do not.
3. Digital Scheduling
It is easiest to catch a poacher in the act- or deter them from trying to poach- if they do not know when to expect the wildlife police to show up. A digital tracking platform called SMART developed at the University of Southern California is helping to create randomized work schedules for rangers. The technology is also helping rangers to identify snares and traps in the bush, and to remove them before they cause any harm.
2. Hidden Cameras
A type of tiny camera is being used to catch poachers in the act. The Trailguard AI camera from non-profit Resolve is the size of a pencil, and can be attached to a tree. It has batteries that last up to 1.5 years in the field. It can also transmit data through mobile networks or satellites to catch poachers.
1. Plastic Clean Up
Image credit: Larina Marina/Shutterstock.com
Sometimes it just takes a little cleaning to solve a problem. Plastic in our oceans is a major problem that is causing fish and other sea creatures to die. Whales, sharks, and other animals are eating plastic bottles and other trash thinking it is food. This causes them to starve.
A group called The Ocean Cleanup developed a large arm that passively collects plastic using the ocean’s currents. It is a 2,000 foot long pipe itself made of plastic connected to slings that descend into the water. Bit by bit the organization is cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They are also inventing additional devices to gather more plastic as time goes on.