Wildlife Crime

Wildlife Crime

29 December, 2015
Integrated Technology Innovations
Drones are an increasing presence on the conservation landscape – but just how do they work, and how effective are they?

Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it advances society, and on the other it endows the darkest sides of humanity with new tools. Sadly, wildlife poaching is no exception to this rule.

Technological developments have facilitated poaching in three unfortunate ways: the location, massacre and transport of wildlife.

These days, helicopters and AK47s are common tools of the poaching trade, often the spoils of unstable regimes in the African region, such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). One incident in 2012 saw 22 elephants slaughtered in a spray of airborne bullets in Garamba National Park, DRC.

With the advantage of being silent, the age-old technique of poisoning has become even more deadly when supplemented with modern technology. Wildlife filmmaker Mark Deeble describes poachers in Tsavo, Kenya, waiting near watering holes, equipped with poisoned arrows and a mobile phone. Once an elephant or rhino is down, a quick text is all it takes for a ‘colleague’ to turn up to collect both hunter and blood-stained ‘prize’ on one of the cheap Chinese motorbikes now ubiquitous in Kenya. Systems like this can be expanded to enable large-scale deplorable activities of the type that saw 80 elephants poisoned with cyanide in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park during 2013.

Recently there have  been reports of geo-tagged Instagram  and Facebook posts unknowingly sharing the exact coordinates of wildlife to poachers, as well as poachers themselves going out on safari and sending GPS locations of rhinos and elephants that end up dead that very same day.

Such is the multi-faceted nature of wildlife poaching today. With conservancies spanning vast landscapes the size of Texas, securing the safety of these wild animals 24 hours a day is a serious challenge.
We know that reaching and protecting the most remote locations is no easy task. More than ever, it requires the  most  advanced, real- time surveillance technology. It takes trained and committed rangers and guards. It takes infrastructure that sustains the effort over the long haul.” says Gov. Bill Richardson, from The Richardson Center permanent ranger training school, in the DRC.
And that’s what’s happening. Conservationists have responded in kind to the wave of machine-assisted, gadget-savvy wildlife slayings, using sophisticated and integrated networks to safeguard endangered species.
“We have to fight fire with fire. Our collective know-how and resources will bring cutting-edge, affordable and readily replicable critical help to this unprecedented crisis,” says Crawford Allan, Senior Director at TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network.
In 2012, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) received a US$5 million grant as part of Google’s Global Impact Awards, which provides support to organisations using tech innovation to address tough human challenges. Since then advanced technological systems have evolved and been applied  in  conservation  efforts across the globe. They are used to monitor and provide intelligence on remote areas, detect activity and alert staff thereof, and provide a deterrent to wildlife crime.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), have been integrated into the network of gadgetry used for conservation purposes. From deforestation in Indonesia to the movement of elephant herds in Namibia, high-tech, low-cost drones are being deployed as a helpful ‘eye in the sky’.
These drones – some of which can even be assembled by hand – usually  have  a  flying  time  of  40  to 90 minutes and are essentially vessels for their high-tech add-ons. Conservation UAVs are often equipped  with  high-resolution,  infra-red,   night-vision and daylight cameras that send real-time video footage from the air to a central command centre. Here the footage is observed alongside surveillance streams from on-the-ground cameras. This data is combined with information from sensors and radio-mesh networks installed in the field, as well as radio- frequency identification chips attached to roaming wildlife, vehicles and rangers – creating a cyber canopy of information.

A rhino with a chip in its horn might visit a watering hole one afternoon. A drone overhead will identify it, while motion detectors on the ground detect major movements, and the 24-7 live video streaming surveillance system provides further visual aid. It is this synergised network that allows staff at the centre to detect if an animal is in danger. If suspicious activity is recorded, anti-poaching units equipped with guns, high- speed vehicles and sniffer dogs are alerted, and know exactly where to go.

There’s been some controversy surrounding the use of drones, their cost, and effectiveness. But UAVs are not intended to be the sole saving grace of the anti-poaching scene. They should be viewed as a complement to the many other wildlife crime prevention methods and devices. And there is evidence that when combined in this way, the technology does produce positive results.
In Nepal, the country’s early application of anti-poaching technologies (including UAVs) is regarded as one of the reasons behind the country’s milestone achievement of 12 months of zero poaching for rhinos, tigers and elephants leading up to February 2014. And referring to the WWF-assisted implementation of tech tools to fight poaching in his country, the Head of Central Parks with the Namibian Ministry of Environment & Tourism and rhino conservation veteran Manie le Roux says: “we are heading in the right direction to make it too difficult for poachers to score successes in Namibia.”

And the thing with technology is that it just gets more sophisticated. On the horizon, drones used for these purposes are set to become smarter, and cheaper, according to Prof. Serge Wich, co-founder of Conservation Drones.

“Because of the growth in the drone market I think there will be several developments around sensors, such as hyperspectral and multispectral cameras. I also expect miniaturisation, higher resolution and a reduction in price,” he says. “There will also  be a rapid progress in battery development so that drones can fly for a longer duration.” 
And this rule stands true of the other gadgets involved in anti- poaching efforts that support drones – there are even reports of installing mini-cams in rhino horns and combining this with a heart-rate monitor to detect and record  attacks.

At the current rate of funding, research and advancement, it won’t be long before even more comprehensive systems are developed, and using them in the fight against wildlife crime is an application that is surely worthwhile.

By: Alex Andersson


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