A growing problem
Over the last decade, an estimated $23 billion global black market economy for illegal wildlife products has emerged, accelerating the problem into a race against extinction. Some products leading this rising market are rhino horns and elephant ivory, among others like pangolin scales and even live animals. Much of this market demand is driven by exotic or uncommon species with high-value parts (like ivory) or invasive species that wouldn’t be found in some parts of the world.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the urgency has increased to protect Africa’s wildlife as anti-poaching programs and resources have diminished due to a lack of vital funds. Many of the funds for anti-poaching programs previously came from tourism dollars and anti-poaching efforts were prioritized when travelers visited to see animals in their natural habitat. However, with the pandemic, many of these opportunities and protection efforts were deprioritized. These new challenges mean that innovative conservation methods are even more important as poaching pressures increase and ranger resources decrease.
High-tech has its eye on you from dusk to dawn. In 2012, WWF received a $5 million Impact Award from Google.org to “use technology to stop poaching”. This has jumpstarted the Wildlife Crime Technology Project (WCTP), the project through which WWF and partners engineered a whole new way to monitor wild animals and nefarious human predators. As a result of the advances made through the WCTP, WWF has become a recognized leader in the use of technology for anti-poaching and wildlife conservation, leading to improved and new technologies.
The new technological developments include video cameras that can distinguish the difference between a hyena and a human at night using their heat signature. A system of thermal cameras with innovative software picks out poachers from a mile away—and strips their ability to maneuver unseen after dark, when most poaching occurs. Currently, both a stationary system of cameras posted along park boundaries and a mobile unit mounted on a ranger truck is being used. It’s an appealing solution to combat wildlife crime in parks and private conservancies all across Africa and Asia. More than 100 poachers have been captured by conservancy rangers in the Maasai Mara as of 2018. That’s a success rate that might let elephants sleep a little sounder.
Advancements in the field
Since its conception in 2012, the wildlife crime project has made monumental strides in protecting species across the globe. Based on what was learned early in the project, WWF and its partners focused on two critical areas: 1) Addressing the challenges of spotting poachers at night and 2) Improving the connectivity and real-time sharing of information from digital sensors.
Of notable success, WWF has helped to prototype and install thermal cameras, develop a network of partners working on technology for conservation, and assess the impact of new security measures.
In June 2015, WWF field tests prototype Teledyne FLIR Systems, Inc. (FLIR) thermal cameras and machine learning to identify humans and trigger automated alerts for rangers when suspected poachers cross into parks. Since then, WWF and FLIR have installed these thermal cameras in areas across Zambia and Kenya. The success of these devices has been astonishing and plans to continue installing these devices are in place.
In November 2015, WWF, in partnership with United for Wildlife, launched WILDLABS.NET: the conservation technology network to build community across global users and developers of technology tools for conservation. According to WWF, “By the end of 2020, over 900 active discussion threads called WILDLABS.NET home. These resources and conversations have been viewed by 144,000 visitors, showcasing lessons from the field and case studies, highlighting successes, and igniting discussion to resolve conservation technology challenges, both in the field and the lab. Responding to the impact of COVID-19 limits on travel, WILDLABS has launched new virtual events, such as the Tech Tutor series that has brought together participants from 77 countries worldwide.”
A story of success: thermal cameras in Kenya
“Poachers primarily operate at night, sneaking into parks and private reserves under cover of darkness. Some are bushmeat poachers illegally killing wildlife for personal profit, others have sophisticated trafficking operations that are armed and backed by organized crime.
Often equipped with little more than flashlights, government and community rangers have virtually no chance of intercepting them. But what if park rangers could see in the dark? Seeking to find a technology that can help rangers ‘see’ at night, the WCTP identified thermal cameras—made by FLIR —as a viable solution. Initial pilots were conducted in 2015 to 2016 in Kenya at Lake Nakuru National Park and the Masaai Mara National Reserve, and were successful; the technology has completely changed the way rangers operate at night. Since installing the FLIR cameras in 2016, the section of Lake Nakuru they monitor has not had any rhinos poached over the past 6 years.
In Kenya’s 580-square-mile Maasai Mara National Reserve, long-range thermal cameras mounted on patrol vehicles in combination with FLIR Scout handheld scopes allowed Mara Conservancy rangers to set up mobile outposts where suspected poachers may appear. Since 2016, Mara Conservancy rangers have apprehended more than 300 poachers with the help of this technology and a majority of nighttime arrests now involve the use of FLIR technology.”
Tourism as a means for anti-poaching
Many economies are dependent on tourism. Especially in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, tourism dollars replace the need for practices like poaching. By keeping wildlife alive and in their natural habitats, these countries can bring in tourism to appreciate these magnificent species and their surrounding landscapes. Tourism doesn’t fuel their economies, but it also aids in protecting places’ social, cultural, and environmental history. It can help in employing local populations and allows residents to share stories about species, cultural heritage, and other topics of personal significance to those visiting.
These tools in technological advancement help to provide a platform for protecting animals, the habitats they reside in, the people sharing these landscapes, and the visitors desiring to witness these incredible species.
Learn more about the wildlife crime technology project and case studies at worldwildlife.org/wildlifecrimetech