With elephant and rhino populations in rapid decline, conservationists and tech companies are working together to bring sophisticated anti-poaching technology to the savanna.
After the heat of day passes and night falls on the African savanna, animals come out to roam. So, too, do the poachers who hunt them, some armed with snares and machetes, others with guns and chainsaws.
These poachers slaughter elephants or rhinos, collecting ivory tusks or keratin horns to sell for cash on the black market. They leave the rest of the carcasses – as well other species unintentionally caught in the crossfire – to rot.
Illegal poaching may soon be on the decline, however, thanks to conservationists at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and tech companies FLIR and Google. This dedicated group helped rangers on African preserves access sophisticated anti-poaching technology.
Using a combination of thermal imaging cameras, human detection software and drones, rangers have arrested more than 100 poachers since the program was introduced last year, deterring countless others.
“Poachers can no longer use the cover of night to run and hide,” said Colby Loucks, WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project lead. “Wildlife rangers now have the help they’ve desperately needed.
“This groundbreaking technology allows them to search for poachers 24 hours a day, from up to a mile away, in pitch darkness,” he continued. “It’s upping the game in our fight to stop wildlife crime across the region.”
Helping Animals in Need
According to the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, poachers slaughter an average of 30,000 elephants per year. In just a decade, this has led to a 64 percent reduction in the elephant population of Central Africa, where elephants are now listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
The numbers are as devastating to rhino populations. Rhino poaching rose dramatically after 2007 (when only 13 rhinos were killed) due to demand in Vietnam, where rhino horns were rumored to hold medicinal properties, including the ability to cure hangovers and cancer. There is no scientific basis to support the medical claims.
“For Africa as a whole, this is the worst year in decades for rhino poaching,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s rhino expert.
Data indicates that poachers wiped out 1,299 rhinos in 2014 and 1,305 in 2015, leaving white rhinos “near threatened” and black rhinos “critically endangered.”
Tech to the Rescue
In 2012, after receiving a $5 million grant from the philanthropic arm of Google, WWF embarked on an effort to develop technology to address the poaching crisis.
Working with FLIR, the team created a range of technologies including surveillance systems that use thermal imaging cameras and human detection software to identify poachers from afar, and then alert authorities of their presence.
In March, 2016, the program launched at the Maasai Mara National Reserve and another undisclosed location in Kenya, marking the first time that such technology has been used to monitor park boundaries for conservation and anti-poaching efforts.
“Rangers are excited about the new technology,” said Loucks. “It makes their job safer; they can see what they’re getting into – for example, whether the poachers have guns or not.”
The new surveillance system allows rangers to monitor nighttime activity around the park, in real time, on monitors in their mobile units. Infrared cameras placed on top of their vehicles stream images of moving thermal bodies. Software differentiates between animal and human heat signatures, alerting rangers when people are on the scene. As a result, rangers know exactly where to go to apprehend poachers, even on a pitch-black night.
“The ability of our rangers to distinguish potential poachers from a large distance is nothing short of remarkable,” said Brian Heath, Director of the Mara Conservancy.
“The last three people our team arrested were flabbergasted as to how they were detected,” he said. “Normally they simply sneak away when an ambush is sprung and avoid detection. Now, their heat signatures are picked up by the thermal camera. We’re catching them.”
Within the first nine months, the new surveillance system enabled rangers to arrest more than two dozen poachers in the Maasai Mara and two more at the second site.
Loucks said the rangers now see their new surveillance system as a “force multiplier” since the cameras have extended their oversight.
“The tech has been so effective, rangers no longer have to patrol a certain perimeter of the park,” he continued. “It’s proving to be a great deterrent to poachers.”
Eyes in the Sky
In October 2016, WWF rolled out a second pilot in Zimbabwe and Malawi, this time using drones to carry the thermal imaging cameras. Piloted by professional drone pilots, the suite of drones has flown more than a thousand missions to date, assisting with anti-poaching efforts as well as mitigating human-elephant interactions.
“Elephants sometimes wander out of parks onto private lands, doing damage to fields. Farmers, whose livelihoods depend on those fields, sometimes harm or kill the elephants to keep them from destroying their crops,” Loucks explained. “The drones can be used to scare off the elephants before these interactions take place.”
Because these tech efforts are pilot programs, WWF is still collecting data to gauge impact. To date, more than 100 poachers have been arrested because of the new surveillance systems.
Loucks said the next step is to scale up these models to equip other wildlife parks and reserves with similar technologies.
“Eventually, we hope to expand our footprint across Africa and then Asia,” he said. “The goal is to use tech to save wildlife around the world.”