How technology can save our endangered animals

As more animals face extinction, new technology and improved partnerships could help provide a solution

The Western black rhinoceros is extinct. This subspecies of African black rhino was last seen in 2006 and was declared extinct as a result of poaching and conservation failures in 2011. There are only three known living members of the Northern white rhino subspecies. If poaching figures continue to rise, other species of rhino will soon join the Western black rhino in extinction and we may be the last generation to see any form of rhinoceros alive. This is why experts advocate the use of drones and other automated technologies to minimize poaching and conserve endangered animals like elephants and rhinos.

The statistics on the state of wildlife in the world paint a depressing picture. According to the latest numbers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 801 animal species have gone extinct, and 64 animal species are extinct in the wild. More worryingly there were 3,879 critically endangered species of animals and 5,689 endangered species of animals as of October 2015. Critically endangered species refer to those that are likely to go extinct soon. It is clear that something needs to be done to protect the Earth’s unique biodiversity and for some the answer lies in technological innovation.

One of the biggest threats to wildlife is poaching. Rhinos and elephants are perhaps the most well known of animal species impacted by poaching, but there are many different species that are effected by the illegal wildlife trade including sea turtles, tigers, gorillas, and lemurs.


Deploying technologies

Already there are projects in place to minimise the threat of poaching and improve conservation efforts using technology. Earlier this year, for example, Dimension Data and Cisco announced an initiative aimed at dramatically reducing the number of rhinos being poached in South Africa. Technology was deployed in an unnamed private game reserve adjacent to the world-renowned Kruger National Park to monitor and track individuals from the time they enter the reserve gates, until they exit.

In phase one, Dimension Data worked closely with Cisco to gather information from the game rangers in order to create a secure Reserve Area Network (RAN) and install Wi-Fi hotspots around key points. Phase two of the Connected Conservation project incorporated CCTV, drones with infrared cameras, thermal imaging, vehicle tracking sensors, and seismic sensors on a highly secure intelligent network.

Bruce Watson, Dimension Data’s Group Executive, said that while a number of rhino poaching initiatives have used drones, they tend to be reactive in nature. “Our technology proactively intervenes and stops people getting to the rhino. In fact, we don’t touch the animals. Future plans are to replicate the technology in other reserves in South Africa, Africa, and globally, to not only protect the rhino, but conserve other endangered species including elephants, lions, pangolins, tigers in India and Asia, and even sea rays in the ocean,” he said.

Tara Stoinski, President and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which partnered with Oracle on its own technology-driven conservation project, explained that drones have become an important mechanism particularly for elephant and rhino conservation where poaching is such a significant problem. She said that the primary mechanism is to use thermal cameras on the drones which identify heat—from both animals and poachers. Rangers can then be deployed on the ground to find poachers. “However, it is only the first step—you then need teams on the ground to find the often well-armed poachers, often over large areas and in rugged terrain, and capture them.”

While drones have primarily been tested as relates to poaching, they could be extremely useful in other areas of conservation, according to Stoinski, such as censusing (or counting) large animals, which is usually done by airplanes in savannah areas or people on the ground in forests, and requires enormous effort. Drones could use the heat signatures of large fauna to assist with providing regular counts to monitor populations. 

“Drones could also help with mapping habitats—for example, the images could be used to identify and count important tree species that are easily identified from the air or to document land use change or illegal deforestation,” she added.


More than just drones

Drones are not the only tech tool being used for such conservation efforts. With funding received from the National Science Foundation and the US Army, the R&D team at Armorway led by Milind Tambe, developed PAWS – Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security  – an application that uses artificial intelligence and game theory to catch poachers. “PAWS creates unpredictable, targeted deployments so poachers can't learn rangers' patrols and exploit them,” said Zare’ Baghdasarian, Co-Founder and CEO of Armorway Inc. “Armorway’s AI continually learns from past performance and newly discovered poaching activity to generate better patrolling strategies for wildlife conservation agents.”

Baghdasarian explained that poachers have more sophisticated tools and out power the security officers who are using simple mobile phones to collect data and report back. Law enforcement needs to stay one step ahead of them in order to outsmart them and that is where technologies such as these come in.

Armorway’s system uses a combination of machine learning and cognitive analytics to analyse a number of important domain factors such as previous patrolling and crime data, animal density, and weather. It can then be used to predict when and where poaching will occur as well as recommend the best patrolling strategy for mitigating poaching. Daily patrol routes are generated and provided to patrollers on smart phones which can also be used to record data along the way.

Armorway’s system can be integrated with the use of drones. “While most anti-poaching patrols today are conducted on foot, wild conservation agencies are now starting to consider using drones as well to augment and enhance their foot patrols,” he said, explaining that since drones provide an aerial vantage point, they can observe large areas for signs of poachers or the animals they seek and explore terrain that would be difficult or impossible for patrollers to access. “Our system can reason about both the capabilities and constraints of the available resources and then synergistically coordinate the foot and drone patrols so as to maximise their joint effectiveness. The technologies that our system is built upon are broadly applicable and can be adapted for any form of conservation,” he said.

Prototypes of patrol recommendation models have been tested in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, the Taman Negara in Malaysia, and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Indonesia.

Other technologies in use include camera trapping and genetics. Dr Jon Wetton of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, explained that despite initiatives to curb poaching and improve conservation, some animals will still fall victim and thus there is a need for forensic approaches. These, he said, can play their part when simple visual inspection cannot link potential evidence to a crime against endangered species.

Wetton explained that, for instance, a suspected poacher may be stopped in a national park with a blood stained knife or a trader may be selling bush meat (meat from wild animals) and in both cases either a common or endangered species may be the source. “Currently there is no easy way of determining species of origin in the field. If the investigation is to be pursued the item has to be confiscated and sent for laboratory analysis of ‘barcode’ mitochondrial genes which differ characteristically in genetic sequence between, but not within species,” he said.

Analysing barcode genes requires specialist knowledge and equipment and the nearest appropriately equipped lab may be hundreds of miles away or in a different country. This involves considerable expense, delay, issues around continuity of evidence which can form the basis of legal challenges and the delay incurred gives the suspect time to abscond. “What is needed is a cheap, portable and rapid means of identifying species of origin in the field. The Oxford Nanopore Technologies MinION DNA sequencer has the potential to meet these needs,” he said.

Wetton added that a simple field-portable DNA sequencing device is top of the wish-list for many field biologists studying biodiversity. “We are hoping to use the MinION to build DNA sequencing capacity not just combatting wildlife crime but also for conservation research and to that end we are partnering with Kenya Wildlife Service who run the Kenyan National Parks and Panthera, an international charitable organisation dedicated to the protection of all the wild cat species, to look at how nanopore sequencing can help them,” he said. “We will be looking at rhino, elephant and tiger populations in the first instance but the potential applications of this technology in studying biodiversity are limitless once it has matured.”


The challenges of marine conservation

Challenges to animal conservation, whether on land and sea, are numerous and include climate change and ocean acidification, pollution, overexploitation of habitats and animal populations, and poaching. Marine conservation is also deploying technologies to aid in the protection of endangered species. Project WHALES (Whale Habitat Advanced Location and Environment Smallsats) was created because several species of the world’s cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are in imminent danger of extinction. Matt Bille, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and Project WHALES leader, said they examined what one of science’s most capable tools, Earth satellites, could do to help protect these animals.

Since marine environments – especially the open seas – are difficult to police, the deployment of such technologies can be invaluable to the conservation of marine animals. Even though, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) prohibited almost all taking of large whales in 1986, small cetaceans are regulated by individual nations, some of which permit continued catches. Billie added that some illegal (“pirate”) whaling of large whales also exists today but is difficult to quantify, and other marine creatures, such as loggerhead turtles, are also poached.

“The most immediate threats to marine mammals are indirect but lethal. The most threatened cetacean is the vaquita, or Gulf of California porpoise. Entanglement of these porpoises in gillnets used in poaching the totoaba fish have reduced the population to 50 to 80 animals. The North Atlantic right whale (~400 animals) is threatened by lost fishing gear and by ship collisions, despite efforts by government and non-profit organisations,” he said.

While satellite monitoring of the ocean habitat began in 1974 and monitoring of whales via satellite started in 1979, Project WHALES looked at options to expand this tracking and reduce gaps in coverage through several options, one of which is the use of specialised microsatellites in a low-inclination orbit (near the equator). The joint US/French programme ARGOS satellites are in orbits over the poles, which unavoidably means they are spread far apart in the tropical regions (where 85% of cetacean species occur) and leave gaps in contact of two hours or more.

“New constellations of microsatellites, such as those launched by Planet Labs and Terra Bella in addition to government-funded satellites, are steadily increasing our ability to image the planet using large numbers of spacecraft which are affordable to build, launch, and replace. These can also spot ship traffic,” Bille said. “High-resolution imaging satellites like those flown by Digital Globe and Terra Bella can also spot individual whales at the surface: we can’t follow them in real time from fast-moving satellites, but still images can assist in estimating numbers in a given area.”

According to Stoinski, one of the things that all these methods generate is lots of data, but this information is only useful if it can be readily accessed. “Data management is something many conservation organisations struggle with—how to quickly turn data gathered in the field into usable information that can help inform conservation decisions,” she said. “Having a system where data is collected electronically, uploaded into a database and then can be immediately queried greatly increases the potential for data to be used in effective management.”

The Fossey Fund has partnered with Oracle to leverage the Cloud and design electronically based data collection techniques that feed directly into a custom database to quick usage by both Fund staff as well as others interested in conservation. 


No easy solution

These technological developments are making a difference in the fight to preserve the world’s animals, but there is still more to be done. The causes of wildlife crime need to be addressed. “Poverty is a root cause of many conservation issues—people hunt for food or as a source of income; they clear forests to be able to grow food,” Stoinski said. In addition, international demand for wildlife parts—ivory, rhino horns—has had a huge effect on poaching in the last few years and international demand for palm oil, which is found in many food products, soaps, cosmetics, is resulting in large scale habitat destruction throughout much of Asia and Africa.

She said that an on-the-ground presence is still essential even with the deployment of technologies such as these. “You still need trained, often armed people on the ground to find and arrest poachers,” she said. “You still need to have a legal structure in place to prosecute poachers. So none of these technologies on their own can solve the conservation crisis.”

As technologies continue to evolve, new ways of combatting poaching and promoting conservation of wildlife will emerge. Baghdasarian said: “Drone technology will surely evolve and advance over the next few years. The result is likely to be cheaper drones which can cover more area with higher resolution video and images. This will make utilising drones more attractive to wildlife conservation agencies from both an effectiveness and a cost perspective. Additionally, the research and utilisation of machine learning and cognitive analytics will only continue to improve.”